Lisa Kokin : Ex Libro, Paul Liberatore Catalog Essay
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