San Francisco is full of freaks. Just ask anyone. Take a walk down Market Street -- you'll see them everywhere. Ride the bus and they'll come sit next to you for a chat. Go on up into North Beach and you'll find the old crusty poets still putting on poetry readings and hippie girls serving fresh juice drinks in little shops along the road. A little further up Columbus Avenue, past City Lights Books, you'll find the San Francisco Art Institute clinging to the edge of Russian Hill. This is the school that Janis Joplin and Devendra Banhart dropped out of to become famously crazy musicians. Superstar artists like Karen Finley, Annie Liebowitz and Kehinde Wiley all went there. And this is where artist Paul Kos has taught for more than 25 years.
Now in his late sixties, Kos makes the kind of contemporary art that people love to hate. In one of his current installations at Galerie Paule Anglim, a single light bulb dangles from an electrical cord. Next to this hangs a two-man saw suspended by two thin lenths of fishing line, which casts a shadow that moves back and forth in a sawing motion. One might speculate endlessly about the deeper meaning of this installation -- that is, until one reads the title, I Saw the Light. Then it seems like a joke of some kind, which one is then free to hate for its simplicity or directness. If you thought the light was meant to be phenomenological in nature or if you thought the saw had a particular metaphor it was trying to achieve, you'd be wrong. It's actually a rebus made with objects, nothing more and nothing less.
In works like this, Kos points to the idea of the thing more than to the thing itself. He is not trying to blow your mind, he is trying to reveal something about the relationship between language and objects. The surrealists called such artworks "poetic objects." Marcel DuChamp, Joseph Cornell, and Andre Breton all gave new meanings to found objects, changing the perception of something by renaming it or intentionally placing it somewhere to elicit a new meaning.
Similarly, another installation called Canary/Coal (Wait for a Song) is not about the stuff, but about the situation Kos creates and the future potential of the stuff. It is a rather huge lump of coal sitting on one end of a shovel that would fall down if the coal was not there. Attached to the shovel (where a handle would be) is a thin tree branch on which sits a small canary. Presumably if the coal was all used up then everything would fall apart and the bird would fly away. The interdependency of things is a common thread in this show.
Kos was an important figure in the Bay Area conceptual art movement, which was all about discovering the world by having hands-on experiences and by thinking about psychological space not as an abstraction, but as being charged with meaning. In the 1970s Kos was known for a performance piece, Pilot Light/Pilot Butte, where he made a lens out of ice and then lit a small fire with it. He then held the ice lens over the fire and put it out with the melting water. Works like these show Kos at his best -- teaching about the world by allowing the viewer to see his process. And like a good teacher, he leaves it all for you to figure out.
Paul Kos: West of the Great Divide: 1968-2008 is at Gallerie Paule Anglim through February 2, 2008.