A grainy Super-8 film from 1971 shows San Francisco-based artist Paul Kos in the role of a demented cowboy, twirling rope as he vainly attempts to lasso a distant butte rising in the arid landscape of his home state, Wyoming. At once absurd and touching, the piece anticipates themes that would later penetrate his oeuvre: sly comedy, covert autobiography, a longing for a lost utopia. The Grey Art Gallery’s Kos retrospective showcases the playful and melancholy work of this influential Bay Area conceptualist (largely unknown here), who has recorded the sound of ice melting and sent a toy train tunneling through a round of Jarlsberg, all in the service of art.
Photographs and films are all that’s left of Kos’s early installations and performances. A herd of Jersey cows licked into oblivion the pillar of salt blocks he erected in a pristine Napa Valley field for Lot’s Wife (1969). In Sand Piece (1971), he transformed a gallery into a giant hourglass, letting a pile of sand slowly spill through a hole between its two floors. Human endeavor, in these works, is one big joke; time and entropy are the punchlines. That ludic sensibility extends even to his more overtly political (often anti-war) art. For one interactive video installation (inspired by a Leni Riefenstahl film), viewers find themselves inadvertently high-stepping to the ra-ta-tap of a manual typewriter.
Occasionally he succumbs to the charm of the one-liner. But his richest works delve deeply into his altar boy past, exploring the evanescent, sensual lure of belief systems: Communism, Catholicism, video art. In Chartres Bleu (1983-86), the passage of light through a medieval cathedral’s stained glass window over the course of a day is condensed into 12 minutes of tape and replayed, life-size, on 27 video monitors, in a Proustian reminder of mortality.