Us and ThemJohn Haber
in New York City
Just in case you missed it, World War IV has begun—with no end in sight. So, at least, say hard-core conservatives. Then again, their last world war, the colder one, dragged on almost as long as Modernism. Fortunately, in the case of power politics, one side decided at last just to forget the whole thing. Maybe Postmodernism could learn from that.
On the sidelines
Kos had good reason to end up on the sidelines. He started in San Francisco, around 1970, when the art world was looking the other way. David Park, Elmer Bischoff, and Richard Diebenkorn had already had, appropriately enough, their moment in the sun. Their light-drenched canvases belong to a more heroic age, for California and for painting itself. Now, however, Paula Cooper, O. K. Harris, and Heiner Friedrich had opened in Soho, with Leo Castelli and others on their way, and art had a new focus. It had little room for Kos's quiet, quirky career.
Kos took on political and religious themes—some have claimed Asian religious themes—back when formalism mattered most. He made video when it was just finding an audience and without the mind games or confessional violence of New York. He taped performances in private and in Europe, when performance art here was decidedly in your face. He listened to ice melting and watched sand falling—and he had a microphone and camera on hand to show it.
Politically, he came after the passions of the 1960s, when it grew harder to get angry at "us." He came long after the left had stopped identifying with "them," except in the mind of the right. His retrospective at New York University's Grey Art Gallery takes him through the 1990s, but he never did opt in. Do proper tales of good and evil say that Lot's wife became a pillar of salt? Kos stood aside as farm animals licked his stacked salt blocks plain away.
One work, from 1987, frames tiny U.S. and Soviet flags, each surrounded by taut rows of still more rolled-up flags. Kos prefers a looser array of small bells, creating an open field in the middle. As part of the work, he suggested that both countries melt their armaments into bells. He then released carrier pigeons in both eastern and western Europe, bringing the flags and bells to a museum in Austria. Within a frame, a video, and Europe, he creates a space between the first and second world—a space for chance, flight, and private ritual.
A more recent video, from 1998, does not even cut the two sides a literal break, that free space in between. At the extremes, he insists, left and right amount to much the same. He writes that message simultaneously with both hands, in well-formed script. He manages mirror writing with his left hand. If the two sides only reflect one another, the writing does, too.
Suspicious of neutral ground, then, while longing for a neutral country? A toy train circles round and round through a big wheel of Swiss cheese. Talk about art looping back on itself.
Only a pawn in their game
Worried about his patriotism? More often, he targets solely the Reds—and the reds. He creates the image of a red pawn from 25,000 magnetic chess pieces. Stuck to the wall, they do not trace the pawn's symmetry, as icon or symbol. Rather, they create a painterly illusion, shadows intact, in bright red and white.
Twenty-one sheets of glass, stacked like dorm-room furniture, supply a similar illusion. Each sheet has a filled, red circle in the middle. From a distance, the colors all but dissolve into light. Up close, one cannot dispel the image of a pawn, again in classic Staunton design.
In another work, on the entrance wall, hammers and sickles keep fifteen cuckoo clocks wound up. The weights also mess up their synchrony. The clocks go off at random, although one has to check one's watch to know when. Kos has removed the hands and the numbers.
Clearly Kos has issues with control. Do not even think of Russian revolutionary art. A red pawn presents an obvious metaphor for life under Communism. The work sets its subject free, shattering the carefully contrived image into a loose cascade of elements. It licks away at the Red menace, like the cows at their salt back in 1969.
Yet his art also exemplifies a mania for control. Out of seeming randomness, it creates patterns. A viewer can shift perspectives, but the artist cannot escape his compulsive order. Imagine the time and skill in arranging those chess pieces. Imagine the practice learning to write with two hands in mutual reflection. Perhaps it makes sense that Leonardo da Vinci, the archetype of individualism and artistic genius, filled notebooks with mirror writing.
In one last assault on red, Kos identifies with the very thing he hates most. An axe, impaled in sheetrock over a red stool, evokes Stalin's murder of Leon Trotsky. However, it also alludes to Kos's fondness for climbing and the rugged, mountainous terrain of the American West, where he grew up. It reminds me of another futile, obsessive gesture, in a video from 1971. He pretends to be trying to lasso a distant butte in Wisconsin. This art maintains its fears and its sense of humor—all with plenty of ifs, ands, and buts.
Rituals as performance
Let me be clear. Political themes take up only a fraction of Kos's work. Yet they also suggest the constancy of his career. He flaunts his obsessions, but he welcomes chance, nature, and the casual viewer. He takes camera and boom mike to evanescent sights and sounds, but he leaves a tactile awareness of the body doing the watching and the listening. He approaches performance as a ritual and stale rituals as a performance.
Do these things sound familiar? He may seem a little too serious or a little too silly, too worried or too laid back. New Yorkers always describe California that way. When I see the stacked glass, I worry that I have fallen for a parlor trick. I worry that the red circles and floating image alike stay too simple or too firm. I worry that he has given it arbitrary associations in place of true political resonance.
Yet Kos should seem relevant to a contemporary New Yorker all the same. Compulsion, chance, mirrors, body parts, changing landscapes, and video—they define pretty well a cluster of early Minimalist and video artists. Think of Marina Abramovic and her endurance contests, Chris Burden and his self-torture, Bruce Nauman and his control games, Robert Smithson and his salt and mirrors, or Yoko Ono and her beautifully elegant conceptual humor, to name only a few. Kos richly deserves his time this fall in New York's mainstream.
The cluster of ideas reminds me of something else as well, maybe the oldest performance art of all, organized religion. Kos has a soft spot for religious imagery. He says that he does not believe in these things, any more than he believes in left or right, but he wishes that Catholicism had not given up so many of its rituals.
In Guadelupe Bell, visitors can pull the cord on a huge bell of bronze and steel. When it tolls, strobe lights cast an image of the Virgin, barely decipherable. Befitting art of the American West, he alludes to Our Lady of Guadelupe, Mexico's patroness of the Americas. Elsewhere a log and a jagged, two-handled saw stand for a crucifix. I liked the rawness and the threat, although I backed off from the heavy-handed nostalgia. Should one not feel observant enough, he puts out two stiff, eighteenth-century convent chairs.
The Church also inspires his finest video. With twenty-seven monitors, one for each pane of glass, he recreates the experience of a towering cathedral window.
And he is us
The work compresses a day's passage in Chartres into twelve minutes. One may enter a room flooded with light. As one waits for something to happen, almost imperceptibly it changes. As afternoon and evening fall, a growing darkness heightens the lead tracery. It clarifies the delicate images before sinking them again in obscurity. Then immediately they grow light once more.
Chartres Bleu should take anyone out of a narrow perspective for twelve minutes, if not longer. Then again, art may always sit uneasily beside notions of us and them.
Since the destruction of the World Trade Center and the war in Iraq, plenty of artists have had to think about the us. They have helped reimagine a future for New York. They have helped question the present. Recently, too, the Whitney has given space to them, with perceptions of the United States from abroad. Ironically, those images could come right out America's mass media.
Maybe I need that irony. Art does not naturally divide the world in half, at least not with artist and viewer always on one side, an unknown on the other. It tends to privilege imaginative identification with the other. It turns on the viewer's response, but it can also transform that interaction into a lively confrontation. It can upset old metaphors along the way. Of the two flags in Kos's frame, America's hangs to the left and the Soviet Union's to the right.
Artists necessarily have to deal with a physical other as well, the art object. It displaces inner thoughts onto a represented or created world. Grey Art Gallery calls this show "Everything Matters." Art is proverbially in the details, not in division by two.
Like many a New Yorker, I could not last long if I had to act so laid back. In today's scene, many an artist must feel much the same. Still, Kos makes a good reminder of the space outside and between us and them—and within us and them as well. He makes the case that political or even overtly religious art sometimes still make sense. He has met the enemy, and he is us.
"Everything Matters / A Retrospective" for Paul Kos ran though December 6, 2003, at the Grey Art Gallery of New York University.