Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Lisa Kokin : Ex Libro Exhibition Catalog by Paul Liberatore

Lisa Kokin : Ex Libro, Paul Liberatore Catalog Essay

Room For Improvement, Lisa Kokin at Donna Seager Gallery Psychoanalysis of the Total Personality, Lisa Kokin at Donna Seager Gallery Four Balls Short, Lisa Kokin at Donna Seager Gallery

Lisa Kokin once called one of her exhibitions Relative Obscurity. While she is charmingly self-effacing, she was referring to the pieces she created for that show out of family photos she'd found in flea markets, not to herself.

At this mature point in her career, the 54-year-old Bay Area artist has achieved a level of prominence in the contemporary art world that invites comparisons in aesthetics, content and use of materials to Louise Bourgeois and Kiki Smith. For the past two decades, Kokin has been in the forefront of an emerging new art form: the artist’s book, hence the title of the exhibition at Donna Seager Gallery: Ex Libro, meaning not only "from the book," but in Lisa Kokin's mischievous world of layered puns, "formerly a book."

“Lisa Kokin alters books and text through a complex system of destruction and preservation,” Seager says. “There is as much meaning in what has been taken away as in what remains. The look and feel of books, papers, texts, and photographs blend to form a unified structure, whole unto itself even before you begin to mine it for the rich content.”

Since artists’ books have been recognized as a distinct genre only since the early 1970s, even the most ardent art lovers can be forgiven for not knowing exactly what they are. They are not books about artists or books depicting artists' work. In the absence of a better description, they have been defined by Stephen Bury, head of European and American collections at the British Library, as “books or book-like objects whose appearance is determined by the artist.” In other words, the book itself, in its altered form, is the work of art. Kokin calls hers “reassembled books.”

“My definition of an artist’s book is open-ended, a freedom that may in many ways be attributed to my lack of formal book art training,” she explains. “I am blissfully unaware of all the rules I am breaking as I go about my routine of sewing, stapling, riveting and otherwise reconstituting objects to transform them.” Kokin left out shredding and pulping and gluing and mashing. Her studio looks like a depot where books go to die, only to be magically reborn as pieces of art that are wonderfully fascinating and endlessly varied in their imagination and creativity.

On a recent visit to her studio before the exhibition, shredded pages in mounds on a table immediately brought to mind images of Monet's haystacks. She explained how she takes each and every one of these shredded pages and painstakingly pulps and molds them with white glue ­into balls of various sizes, from bonbons to boulders. “It's very difficult physically,” she says with a slight grimace. “There's a lot of repetitive motion.”

In one corner of the floor was a cluster of what appeared to be stones, the smooth, round ones found on river bottoms. She'd molded them from pulped self-help books. Their colors are watery reds, earthy greens, browns and grays, and on many of them you can glimpse the titles: Fit for Life, How to Live on Your Income, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office. Arranged together on the gallery floor, they form an installation she calls Room for Improvement.

“Through her process of art making, she explores cultural and personal issues of conformity and gender, the ambiguities of society and human behavior,” Seager says, referring to Kokin's frequent investigations of her bisexuality, her Jewish heritage, her devotion to universal struggles for social justice and against censorship. “Her aesthetic in these meanderings is consistently refined and appealing.”

And, in this show, funny. The woman has a sense of humor to go along with her social conscience. “It's very important that people laugh,” she says with a sly smile.

Like a Native American using every part of an animal, wasting nothing, Kokin has taken the variously-colored spines from the self-help rocks and fashioned them with burlap and twine into what looks like a Venetian blind. She calls the piece Treatment, a play on both psychotherapy and window coverings. In this context, the titles are as risible as they are readable: Eat More, Weigh Less, How to Clean Everything, How to Manage Your Mother, The Simple Abundance Journal of Gratitude, and the presciently ironic The 401(k) Millionaire.

“I like to work within limitations,” she says. “I ask myself, ‘How can I take a book and make it look completely different, but only use the materials from the book and very little else? Those are the parameters of my challenge. I sometimes use thread or wire, but I don't want to use extra color or doodads or tchotchkes.’” Kokin has several reassembled dictionaries in this collection. Her favorite, Abridged, has recently been featured in Banned and Recovered, an exhibit sponsored by the San Francisco Center for the Book and the African American Museum and Library at Oakland.

“Each artist was asked to pick a book that had been banned,” Kokin recalls. “I originally thought to do a gay-themed book, but when I searched the Internet for banned books and found that the American Heritage Dictionary had been banned in at least two states, I thought, 'That's my book.'” It struck her as beyond the pale that anyone would ban a dictionary because some bluenose found 39 “objectionable” words in it. But there's no underestimating the dictatorial righteousness of the Texas Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, who were “shocked” by “debasing” words like “brain” (denotes violence), “bucket” (slang for buttocks) and “across-the-board,” (betting on horse racing in Texas is illegal).

“I pulped each page and saved only the banned words,” Kokin explains. “I then reconstituted the pages and pressed the 'bad' words into their respective pages. Then I baked the book to darken the pages and give them a burnt aroma. The pages are held together by a strap made from the spine of the dictionary, with an anagram for “American Heritage” (“Ream Again Heretic”) sewn onto the bottom. I used the entire dictionary except for the covers, with only glue, snaps and thread to hold it together.”

Like many of her baby boom generation, Kokin was taught to wash her hands when handling books, to treat them with the utmost respect. So she’s had to wrestle with conflicted feelings about her sometimes ruthless artistic process. “Every time I take my X-Acto blade to the tender page of a book, I see my long deceased grandfather's face before me,” she says. “He is not happy. I am committing the Jewish equivalent of a mortal sin, and, believe me, I feel guilty. So powerful is my drive to rearrange and juxtapose, however, that I am willing to risk the wrath of my ancestors to accomplish my mission.” It was especially painful when she was faced with a handsome atlas that had been in the Indian Consulate library in the 1950s.

“It was such a beautiful book,” she sighs. “The maps were just gorgeous. It hurt to have to pulp them, but I did.” The result is a striking piece that consists of pyramids of pulped pages stacked symmetrically in colorful balls between the book's covers. The old atlas ended up exacting its own bit of good-humored revenge. After she’d pulped all the pages, she discovered that there weren't quite enough to finish the piece, hence the title, Four Balls Short. “I had to take some pages from another book,” she admits.

Conversely, Kokin made the most of a tragedy, salvaging a priceless first edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin, subtitled, Or, Life Among the Lowly. “A friend gave it to me after her friend’s dog chewed it up,” she says. In its new form, the pulped balls grow like Topsy on twisted wire out of the remains of the book. All that was left of the title was Un Life, which is what Kokin decided to call it.

She has always been a political artist, from her beginnings making batiks to protest the Vietnam War and to support solidarity movements in Chile and Latin America. Later, she designed posters for leftwing causes in a graphics collective and built apartment houses in Cuba. While studying at California College of the Arts, she began working with found materials: photographs, buttons and other common objects from flea markets that used to belong to real people, and now only represent their discarded memories.

“My work is about memory and history, both personal and collective, and the areas where the two intersect,” she says. “I'm interested in representing the human condition by using the objects we leave behind.” Some of her most powerful work deals with the horrors of the Holocaust and the plight of marginalized people everywhere. She has never been afraid to tackle the largest socio-political issues: racism, censorship, violence, genocide.

On a recent search at a recycling center, Kokin came upon a batch of Western novels, Louis Lamour-style macho tales with titles like Blood Reckoning and Night of Vengeance. In the past, she would not have been attracted to this kind of book, but she saw them as particularly relevant now, at the end of two terms under the swaggering George W. Bush.

“For the Ex Libro exhibition, she shredded these shoot-'em-up novels to create two long, quilt-like pieces she calls Shroud. They hang in the gallery as both a death knell for the past and victory banners for the future. “It's about the end of an era,” she says. “I see it as a comment on the last eight years. Now that I'm older, I still have political consciousness, but my work is not as black and white as it was when I was in my twenties. I had very strong opinions then, and I still do, but they have grown more subtle.”

“I believe in Lisa Kokin’s work,” says Seager, “She has an individual approach to her materials and medium. With humor, content, unerring instincts and meticulous craftsmanship she is able to deliver a unique aesthetic sensibility. When I see her work, I am reminded of the first time I saw an exhibition by Eva Hesse in which my idea of art was instantly expanded and I was able to imagine new forms of self-expression.”

With this extraordinary show, we’re seeing an artist at the height of her powers, serious in purpose but light in touch. She presents her view of the world with the
consummate skill of an artist whose work will be remembered, and whose contributions are destined to take their place in the history of art in the new millennium.

See Lisa Kokin at www.donnaseagergallery.com

Monday, January 5, 2009

Terra Linda woman debuts album 20 years after being forced into hiding

Marin singer/songwriter Kathryn Keats calls her debut CD, "After the Silence," an apt title that celebrates her new life, a second chapter free of the relentless fear of being hunted down and killed, murdered by a psychopath who had once been her songwriting partner, her mentor, her lover.

For the better part of two decades, during what should have been the heart of her musical career, Keats gave up her public life, hiding from a murderous madman under a new identity provided by the Alameda County Victim Assistance Program.

She was escaping from a psycho former boyfriend and erstwhile musical director named Ken Ford, who told her the Zen gods commanded him to leave her "dismembered and hanging from the trees."

"It was terrifying to always be looking in closets and behind doors, to be afraid to walk on the street," she recalled, sipping a cup of tea at the dining room table of the comfortable Terra Linda home she shares with her husband and their two young sons.

Free at last
Keats is a zipper-thin woman in her late 40s, hip looking, with short, spiky black hair. On this gray day, she wore low-rise jeans that hugged her trim figure and padded around barefoot in her tastefully decorated house, its walls hung in fine art.

In 2005, she received the news she had been awaiting most of her adult life: that Ford had died, of lung cancer. Her first response was to express her relief, her long pent-up emotions through music.

"I wrote a song the day I found out that Ken was dead," she recalled. "I was crying, writing it at the piano. Lorenzo (her then 8-year-old son) was behind the couch. He slowly stuck his head up and sang the chorus out of nowhere. I said, 'May I use that?' He replied, 'Yes, but how much will it pay?'"

What emerged that day was a country ballad, "Why Don't You Pray," that begins, "It's my first day of freedom for many a day," and goes on to rejoice over the end of a murderous affair that forced her to abandon her musical career and kept her emotionally paralyzed with fear for decades.

"You know I spent 20 years, almost half a life," she sings. "I don't recommend it. You forget how to cry."

She's excited about this second chance she's been given, even though she says she doesn't quite know what to make of it yet.

"I've had a hard time getting comfortable in suburbia," she said. "I'm grateful and I love it. It's beautiful. But I'm really just a funky musician. To feel of value, all I need is a city, some places to work and to be composing and producing music with creative people."

Even in less than funky upper-middle-class Marin, she's set free her long suppressed creativity with her new album, a slickly produced independent CD that showcases a half-dozen finely crafted original pop songs she co-wrote with titles like "My Life," "Hold Me" and "Lovin' So Easy."

"To come out of hiding and take back music is a really different vibe," she said, lamenting the confusion it has caused her children. "It would have been easier to take back music and not come out of hiding because I'm a good musician, songwriter and singer."

In all of her time underground, she was none of those things. She didn't have the heart to write songs and wouldn't have sung them in public if she'd wanted to. She couldn't even use her real name, Ellen Munger, which was becoming known in musical theater circles before the nightmare that ended her career just as it was beginning to take off.

To elude her stalker, she legally changed her name to Kathryn Keats, the first name borrowed from her grandmother and the last from her favorite romantic poet.

In the early '80s, after a dramatic and unprecedented Alameda County court trial, Ellen Munger ceased to exist.

"The last show I did was in Theater on the Square in San Francisco and someone in the audience recognized me," she recalled. "It was my last attempt to work. I knew when that happened, I was done, that was it, it was over. It was proof that I could no longer do what I'd done my whole life. And I didn't really know how to do anything else. That's all I loved."

Sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll
Growing up in Evansville, Ind., she had been a natural-born performer, announcing to her family when she was 5 that she wanted to be a singer when she grew up.

She spent her youth pursuing that goal, singing at Nashville's Opryland when she was still in high school, appearing a number of times on TV in "The Mike Douglas Show," studying at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.

She wasn't yet 18 when she moved to New York in the mid-1970s, landing a part in "Let My People Come," a lurid off-Broadway show that billed itself as "a sexual musical" and included nudity, simulated intercourse, X-rated songs and a lot of offstage drug use.

That's where she met Ford, the show's long-haired and handsome musical director, 13 years older, a powerful and charismatic personality.

It didn't take long for her to fall under his spell and for her to move in with him in Philadelphia when they weren't on the road, touring with the show for the next five years.

"Ken was a great musician," she says, even now. "All we did was write music together."

And do drugs.

Keats was alarmed when Ford began showing psychotic symptoms, hearing voices, seeing spirits in the shadows on the walls, a schizophrenic splitting into multiple personalities.

Angry and paranoid, he turned on her, beating and sexually abusing her.

"None of this probably would have happened if there hadn't been so much drug use," she said, remembering those free-wheeling hippie days. "People in Marin need to know that drugs really screw you up. And they really get you in trouble when you're a teenager, which I was when I met Ken. I was 17."

A life-saving trial
The insane romance turned into abject terror in 1983, when they were living in an Oakland apartment. For 54 harrowing days, Ford held her captive, subjecting her to unspeakable torture and humiliating abuse.

Keats didn't try to escape because she believes she was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, in which victims become emotionally attached to their abductors.

"When you're in that situation, you learn to do anything to love your perpetrator, so you stay alive," she explained. "You'll get killed if you get away. So you end up identifying with the perpetrator because if you don't, the perpetrator will kill you. So you'll do anything to stay in the good graces of that person so you won't be murdered."

Ford's descent into madness resulted in him once showing up at Keats' sister's doorstep looking like a prophet of doom, barefoot, wearing a white robe and white wig.

Just in time, the sister intervened, calling the police, who took Ford to Highland Hospital in a straitjacket. After he was released, he called Keats from a pay phone, threatening to find her and kill her.

In mortal fear for her life, she took her case to a young district attorney named Leo Dorado, now an Alameda County Superior Court judge.

"When I went to see the apartment, then there was no doubt in my mind that he was very dangerous," Dorado recalled last week. "The things he had written on the walls were not just disturbing, but totally dark and scary. It was incredibly frightening. That's when we knew we had to do something."

Hamstrung by the limitations of the law in domestic violence cases in those days, when stalking wasn't even illegal yet, Dorado cobbled together what he calls "a kind of hybrid case, between a criminal and civil proceeding, to indicate that he was dangerous, but that there was a psychiatric foundation to his dangerousness.

"We hadn't really done this before and we couldn't find any precedent for it," he continued. "But we knew he was so dangerous we had to get the psychiatric community to present a case that was coherent to a jury, to give her some time."

Keats, then still known as Ellen Munger, was a powerful witness.

"Despite the mortal fear for her life on an immediate basis, she was able to hold it together in court," Dorado said. "She's so intelligent she was able to give a good factual history to the jury and show how bad he had become. What impressed me about her was her strength through all of this. To be able to focus and be able to stand in front of a jury and recount these things. She knew better than anybody what was in his mind."

The jury believed her, and Ford was sentenced to a six-month involuntary psychiatric commitment.

"Without a doubt, she was in mortal danger if we didn't have him committed, and the jury understood that," Dorado recalled. "But there was only so much we could do to keep him committed."

"After the trial, I lost touch with her," Dorado said.

And so did just about everyone else except for a few close relatives.

Going underground
With her new identity, she went into hiding in Los Angeles, serving as an assistant to photographer Herb Ritts and working as a "schlepper," her word, in the film industry.

In 1989, while managing an acting studio in San Francisco, she met and fell in love with Richard Conti, an actor and owner of a marketing design business. They married four years later and now have two sons, 11 and 13.

She kept the door to her past closed, except for an occasional crack.

"The real details I didn't know," Conti said. "There were certain things I really didn't want to know, to be honest, because some of them were really bad. I could see it was really painful to her, so she kept that to herself."

But fear is not easily hidden or kept to oneself.

"There were episodes when we'd be out to dinner and someone would walk by who would spook her, who would remind her of Ken, and we'd have to go right home," Conti remembered. "Even at home, if someone strange was parked across the street, she'd make me go over and ask him what he was doing. She had a lot of bad dreams. There was always that fear."

Afraid no more
The fear evaporated four years ago when the call came that her tormentor, who had become a street person, was dead.

"It was like the biggest weight off her shoulders," her husband recalled. "She really changed. She totally opened up. The day she found out she was in tears because it was an incredible release. Interestingly enough, she sat down at the piano again and started singing. It was automatic."

She also called Dorado, the former prosecutor who had saved her life all those years ago.

"I didn't hear from her until one day she called me, not that long ago, and said, 'This is Ellen Munger. I don't know if you remember me but I just wanted to tell you that Ken Ford is dead and I can come out now.' It was really a stunning call after so many years had past.

"She recited to me what she'd had to do, to stifle her creativity because of the publicity, of not being able to rest until she'd heard he'd died. We have a good relationship now. We don't always have good stories and happy endings in these kinds of cases."

In March 2006, Keats told her story for the first time in an article in Reader's Digest.

"I wanted people to know who I was, to know what I'd been sitting on forever, to know why I'm so weird, why I'm so extroverted but so terribly introverted, why no one knows anything about me," she explained. "And also the fact that since I lived through it, it was really my job to come out and speak about the issue."

Keats doesn't regret the good that her story has done in helping other abused women, but she wishes she could have spared her sons from it.

"Can you imagine being a child and the one person you trust implicitly, your mother, is not who she said she was for the first 10 years of your life?" she asked. "I would never have come out of hiding if I had known the impact it would have on my children. Never, never, never."

But the past is the past, as Keats knows better than anyone. And she has her first CD, at long last, and her career in music is beginning again.

"The music part is awesome," she beamed. "Everything I'm tied to in my whole being is music. Oh, my gosh, just to be back in public with music and write music and work with people I want to work with. It's so cool."

'After the Silence'

What: Kathryn Keats sings in Marin for the first time, accompanied by bassist Michael Manring and pianist Kevin Gerzevitz

When: Friday, Jan. 23

Where: 142 Throckmorton Theatre, Mill Valley

Tickets: TBA

Contact Paul Liberatore via e-mail at liberatore@marinij.com