San Francisco

Paul Kos

Anglim Gilbert Gallery

Paul Kos’s career-spanning exhibition “West of the Great Divide: 1968–2008” featured twenty-one works—kinetic and static sculptures, drawings, sound works, and videos addressing the pioneer histories, mythologies, and landscapes of the American West. The focus was thus as much on the Gold Rush as on the Bay Area Conceptualism of the 1970s, of which Kos was a key progenitor. The show—less a retrospective than a highly selective survey pulling from a mature artist’s extensive inventory—revealed Kos as the purveyor of a funky brand of minimalism infused with goofy wit.

This was previously communicated in Kos’s 2003 career survey “Everything Matters,” organized by the Berkeley Art Museum, via video installations such as Tower of Babel, 1989, in which talking heads chatter away in a battery of different languages, and by sculptures incorporating hammer-and-sickle forms made from found objects, inspired by political shifts in Eastern Europe. The show at Gallery Paule Anglim, by contrast, was consciously rooted in a more geographically—and culturally—familiar location.

Site gets as specific here as Real Estate Sculpture on Loan, 1968–69, a framed official document authorizing the loan of a vacant lot in Contact, Nevada (owned by the artist’s father), to the Richmond Art Center for the period of Kos’s exhibition there. An accompanying diagram reveals that the claim includes a volume of soil that reaches sixty-six million feet from the earth’s surface down to a “molten tip,” a succinct suggestion of enormous potential. Real Estate Sculpture is part of a contemporaneous dialogue about land that is also addressed in Gordon Matta Clark’s “Reality Properties: Fake Estates,” 1973–74, and it continues to resonate in a national economy driven—or stalled—by housing markets.

The presentational mode of this work expresses a formal Conceptualist elegance that Kos also applies to rough-hewn industrial objects. A prominently placed sculpture titled Sluice, 1973, is a notched, ladderlike steel plank, resembling a piece of mining gear, leaning against the wall. Ghostly daubs of gold leaf have been applied at regular intervals, giving it the feel of a Donald Judd sculpture marked by the narrative traces of a prospector’s aspirations.

Among the more recent works in the show were atmospheric “video paintings” of western landscapes. In these, footage of natural settings is projected on canvases covered with gestural brushstrokes of reflective paint. These trace the contours of a Wyoming plain, in Pilot Butte, 2006, and a babbling stream, in Yuba Red Rock, 2007. Sounds of wind and water emanate from the projections, infusing the gallery with a soothing ambience. The paintings themselves, though, are somewhat awkwardly rendered, verging on a slightly cheesy quasi-impressionism, yet Kos manages to get away with them by mixing solid conceptual foundations and a genuinely amiable spirit.

More problematic is a tendency toward the literal. The appearance of undulating waves is generated by the shadow of a gently swinging two-person saw blade in I Saw the Light, 2007, yet the title is a groan-inducing pun that pointlessly undercuts a menacing subtext. This tension between sophistication and silliness is also a repeated strategy that occurs in the work of Tom Marioni and William Wiley, Bay Area artists of a similar age, but it remains a risky gambit. Still, Kos has been working long enough that the consistency of his concerns, as expressed in various media, is by now more than firmly established. And the fact that this show’s chronology was not always readily apparent suggests that there’s plenty of gold left to be mined.

Glen Helfand