Art Criticism

Paul Kos: Allegories and Metaphors (1968–2012)

Paul Kos: Emboss I, II, III (1995), in Allegories and Metaphors (1968–2012) (Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois, 2012).
Exhibition review published in ArtReview (London), no. 66, March 2013, pp. 152-153.

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Catching your eye straightaway in Allegories and Metaphors, a triptych of full-length photographs depicts, in the 1920s style of high-contrast black-and-white, a naked female, facing away. Her curvaceous backside bears the impressed patterns of three seats: two in wrought iron (one slatted, one mesh), and one in wood and cane, the chair standing next to her in each case. Paul Kos’s 1995 series Emboss I–III (or dare we rebaptise it One (Woman) and Three Chairs, since one can’t help being reminded of a certain 1965 work by Joseph Kosuth?) is the quintessence of the wittiness separating West Coast Conceptualism from the austere, historically dominant New York version. One of its leaders in the Bay Area since the late 1960s, Kos was introduced to the Vallois gallery by one of his former students, French artist Julien Berthier – which resulted in this, his first solo show and survey in Paris, bringing together a small selection of his static and kinetic sculptures, photographs and videos, from 1968 to 2012.

While Kos came up with the idea of Emboss in a Parisian café summers ago, amused by the seat-prints that loungers wearing shorts or skirts would carry away upon leaving, his aesthetics typically proceed in situ, like Lot’s Wife (1969), his first work to use materials indigenous to their environment: local Jersey cattle. Invited by Rene di Rosa, the great supporter and collector of Bay Area art, to his Napa Valley wildlife reserve, Kos ended up stacking a pile of cow-lick blocks in the middle of a herd, documented by three photographs. As an ironic sequel to the biblical figure turned into a pillar of salt for looking back at Sodom against divine command, the cows would eventually lick away the ephemeral sculpture. With site, too, often comes anecdote, wether personal or cultural: as with Montezuma’s Gift (1998), a pedestal-mounted bronze roll of toilet paper covered with gold leaf. Satirically embodying the precious metal with which the Aztec ruler vainly hoped to welcome the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés (whose forces eventually killed Montezuma in 1520), it evokes the vernacular expression venganza de Moctezuma (Montezuma’s revenge) used since to designate cases of diarrhoea contracted by travellers in Mexico.

Since the beginning of his career Kos has been working on viewer-participation pieces. One example here is Equilibre IV (1992), a coat hanger that has been unwound into a single long wire and balanced on a freestanding broom, the hanger holding in equilibrium a bell on one end and a candle on the other. “If one lights a candle, one worries, how much does a flame weigh?” the artist tells me. While tension ran high during my visit and the precarious arrangement crashed to the floor, another piece, Diminuendo/Crescendo (2011) is only complete if you venture to play its game. The musical notation for the two dynamics is painted on a wallsize panel, diminuendo on top of crescendo, pierced at their highest points by, respectively, a small and a large hole. Tossing a lightweight wooden ball into the first or a heavy steel one into the second produces a complex sound modulation through the cacophony of their descent, as the panel conceals two intricate labyrinths of tubes, both of which terminate at a bell. Ding!

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