“Gene Koss’s New Work,” New Orleans Art Review

By Karl F. Volkmar, New Orleans Art Review
October / November / December 2013

New Sculpture
Arthur Roger Gallery
New Orleans, LA

Gene Koss: Drawing A, 2013. Cast glass and steel. Photo courtesy: Michael Smith

LIKEABLE. GENE KOSS’S work is likeable. And I like looking at his work. Seeing how earlier themes continue to evolve, what new variations on the theme of, for example, Disc Drawings, have been developed, what new huge piece has taken form, and what new ideas have been added too the artist’s repertoire, as some idea are revisited and renewed, while others are new. This new exhibition at the Arthur Roger Gallery is no exception.

Especially interesting is to see the new large work that the artist has conceived, Line Fence in this exhibit. Working with cast glass as his primary medium, which he often combines with various and sundry other materials and found objects, Koss’s work challenges whatever reservations one may have, with respect to a medium conventionally associated with utilitarian objects, about the viability of glass as a material for conceptual art. Combine Koss’s wit, expressed in titles evoking amusing associations that offer multiple paths for approaching the work, with the artist’s use of glass in ways unexpected by those unacquainted with its potential, and the confident craftsmanship of the mature artist produces work that represents a confluence of formal strength, humorous associations, and syntheses of multiple historical antecedents.

In the current show at the Arthur Roger Gallery, Koss continues to build on ideas and materials referenced to the artist’s early upbringing on a Wisconsin farm. Building on America’s nostalgic love of roaming through flea markets and old stuff stores and delight in unusual tools from a bygone age when inventiveness manifested itself in machines, gives his work its special tactile, and visual, appeal.

The artist’s fine feeling for the evocative power of transposition and re-contextualization, resituating objects from the everyday to the art, is empowered by conceptual precedents: the ready-mades of Duchamp, Picasso’s assemblages, the Nouveau Realisme of Tinguely, and Rauschenburg’s anything goes. Koss’s playfulness is even more delightful because of the slightly askew character of his creations. Viewers are invited to guess for what function some of the found objects were designed. Unusual juxtapositions challenge one to imagine just how these new objects might function. It’s good fun.

Gene Koss: Fence Row, 2013. Cast glass and steel. Photo courtesy: Michael Smith.

Fascination with Koss’ work, indeed Koss’ own motivations, may be attributed, at least to some degree, to an American love of gadgets which continues unabated in this digital era. Contrast the fads for iThis and iThat that celebrate coolness over content (what content?) with bucolic nostalgia for a pre-industrial, pre-digital age with its chimerical fantasy of an idealized existence when life was easy, nature was abundant, and families worked close together tending the soil day in and day out, year after year, manual labor adding value, toiling under the sun, welcoming the rains, husbanding the growth and harvesting of other living things to provide for human needs. Curiously, a similar fascination with materials qua materials characterized Minimalism as it appeared in the sixties as antidote to the subjectivities of expressionism and Modernism messianic ideals.

Line Fence is a large, more than seven feet high and twenty-five feet in length, construction of cast glass and stainless steel, on the scale of public art that must command attention when installed in an open air setting. Displayed in the enclosed space of the gallery, it may seem as if the walls have been built around the artwork rather than the sculpture being inserted into the con­ fines of the gallery. The experience of walking around the work is rather like visiting a factory production facility with its immense machinery. Yet there is also an approachable character to Line Fence that may be due to its rural roots as one watches other visitors on the further side and feels the urge to chat with them. Certainly the gallery situation with its huge quantities of daylight coming in through the windows has a way of surrounding Koss’s with a field of light, giving rise to an impression of fusion with surrounding space not unlike Donald Judd’s one hundred untitled works installation at the Chinati Foundation near Marfa, Texas.

One can appreciate Line Fence from several perspectives: historical, formal, and poetic. From the historical perspective, the use of stainless steel and ground moire surfaces evokes David Smith’s Cubi series. The long shape dividing space in such a way that one must walk around to experience it fully is like Richard Serra’s somber COR-TEN steel Tilted Arch reconceived on a more human, and humane, scale. The artist’s use of elemental, clearly articulated forms hints at an empathetic identification with Modernist abstraction. The simple industrial materials mirror those of Minimalism.

Gene Koss: Sunrise, 2013. Cast glass and steel. Photo courtesy: Michael Smith.

Conflations of simple color and texture in the arrangement of a series of bluish green glass slabs along the top may evoke memories of glass insulators on old-fashioned, creosote-soaked utility poles, or birds perching along a telephone wire [remember them?]. One might even imagine a connection to Oldenberg’s Pop Art if one reads the form as a highly abstract toothbrush or swivel­ headed Trac II razor.

The two large works from the Totem Series are each over seven feet in height. Totem Series (13436) with its strong contrasts of large dark timber and light cast glass might be a Dogon-like mask worn by a race of giants from Easter Island or a relative of a Cajun tree spirit. Closer inspection, however, reveals that the shape of the large glass cotter pin matches the intaglio shapes cut into the timbers, suggesting that the whole was [also?] conceived as mold and casting.

The word totem comes from an Ojibwee word meaning “his kinship group.” From this perspective, Koss’s totem works seem to have a closer kinship bond to the totem concept as interpreted in the work of numerous twentieth century artists rather than to the totems of the indigenous people of North America’s Pacific Northwest Coast. While the sensitive, delicate crafting of Louisiana sculptor Clyde Connell’s work reflects the indigenous spirituality, Koss ‘s totems are more akin to the interpretations of Archipenko, the totemic character of Smith’s sculpture, Nam June Paik’s Internet Dweller, and the carefully crafted constructions of Monster Roster artist H. C. Westermann.

Totem Series: High Honor-William Koss suggests affinities with the rough cut lumber of Miminalist Carl Andre and Robert Arneson’s tongue-in-cheek humor. The concentric arcs made by the saw shaping the timber have a textural kinship with the moire surfaces of Line Fence. A workman on a construction site might put his lunch pail or toolbox on top, except for the extreme height (eighty-seven inches). Perhaps a punning play on the pedestal displays in galleries and museums, but, oops!, someone forgot their toolbox! Or is that the art?

The three Levee Sculptures are assembled from rescued material, various scrap parts, and found objects that are transformed into art like a folk artist creating little whimsical critters and nonfunctional machines. Inspired by the ingenious devices designed to control water flow or irrigate rice fields, one may not be able to figure out just how Koss’s Levee Sculptures, and the Bridge Series piece would work, and that can be part of the fun. But they certainly look like they have been used, and hard, perhaps recovered from a pile of used machinery dumped alongside the irrigation levees beside the road. The appearance of questionable efficacy does not exclude the possibility that they just might work, like Klee’s Twittering Machine, Calder’s toys, or Nancy Graves’ critters. Although Koss sometimes refers to these smaller pieces as maquettes, meaning that they might serve as models for one of his larger works, they serve well as independent pieces.

Gene Koss: Levee Break, 2013, Cast glass and steel. Photo courtesy: Michael Smith.

The Ridge Road Climb and Disc Drawing series are made using slabs of glass with lines of colored glass threaded through the mass of glass. The uneven surfaces, edges, and contours of these amoebic slabs of transparent glass are memories of the tools used to shape and have a character similar to the gestural strokes of abstract expressionist paintings. The molten streams of color winding through the translucent volumes, casting shadows within the masses through which they twine, are fascinating, like cream undulating through a glass of iced coffee, like strands of DNA rapt in an evolutionary dance.

The interplay between transparency and translucency, reflection and refraction reminds me of one of my favorite paintings, often found in art history survey and appreciation texts, the Peaches and Jar fresco from Pompeii with its careful observation of reflected, refracted, and absorbed light as it makes contact with the glass of the jar, the liquid inside, and the stair steps. Moving around Ridge Road Climb, viewing it from various angles, provides additional opportunities to enjoy the complexities of the irregular helices of the threads of colored glass and the shadows they cast. It is fun to imagine a miniature self at the wheel of a tiny sports car following the routes delineated by the undulating serpentine lines. Maybe even with accompanying vrmmvrmmming sounds to make it even more fun!

Childlike, perhaps, but another way of becoming fully engaged with the work, a virtual, literal way of putting oneself into the works. Calder, I suspect, would agree. Anything to subvert tendencies to merely stand in front of each piece as if it were a relief sculpture whose whole truth was revealed from the front. This one dimensional fixation can be expanded to involve every dimensions as one moves around the work, perhaps moving the light source, adding additional sources, illuminating the work from multiple perspectives, perhaps even placing the sculpture on a rotating base like Moholy Nagy’s Light Space Modulator. The Disc Drawing pieces are similar to Ridge Road Climb. Numbers 13419 and 13421 rest on large bases rather than pedestals producing the effect that the shadows of the threads and points are cast on the sunounding surfaces like the variegated shadows in Renoir’s Le Moulin de Ia Galette.

Completing our tour of Koss’s work is a brief look at a subspecies in the Totem theme. Made of dark brown glass like golems made of clay, one subgroup includes lumpy fetish-like forms like Paleolithic fertility figures or genetic anomalies distantly related to Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. Another subgroup includes several slender plantlike forms, each just beginning to differentiate itself according to its unique genetic coding, like polyps or hydrozoa of the imagination. Their biomorphic character identifies them as belonging to an order in which one also finds work by another artist who works primarily with glass, Dale Chihuly. It is an important order within the domain of art with only a few extant examples and practitioners.