Sunday, May 27, 2007

Art Space Talk: Lisa Kokin

I observed the art of Lisa Kokin while attending the Bridge Art Fair preview party. Lisa Kokin’s work in mixed media installation, artist’s books, assemblage and sculpture is about memory and history, both personal and collective. Her work has been exhibited in numerous solo and groups exhibitions in the United States and abroad. A recipient of a California Arts Council Individual Artist’s Fellowship and a Eureka Fellowship from the Fleishhacker Foundation, Ms. Kokin’s work is in numerous public and private collections. She is represented by Jenkins Johnson Gallery in New York, and Donna Seager Gallery in San Rafael, California.

(Nineteen SixtyButtons and mixed media, thread, imitation sinew, 81 x 50)

Brian Sherwin: I observed your work at the Bridge Art Fair in Chicago. Can you discuss Nineteen Sixty, a piece that you had on display?

Lisa Kokin: Nineteen Sixty is part of a series of buttonworks that I began several years ago after my father died. I needed a few years to pass after his death to begin to think about how I wanted to pay tribute to him. I began by making a small button head based on a photo. I have been collecting and using buttons in my work for a long time and had always wanted them to play a more important role in my work but until that time I hadn’t known how to do that.

Most of my work begins in an unpremeditated and spontaneous way. I like the mystery of that process. After making a few small portraits of my father I decided to work larger. I liked the increase in scale and the way the process began to resemble painting. I’d be very close to the work sewing the buttons together and the image would be very abstract. Once I backed away several feet, the image crystallized into something recognizable. I liked that interplay. These early pieces led to a series based on old family photographs. After working with other people’s photos for so long it was interesting to take out mine and work from them. Nineteen Sixty is based on a photo of my mother and me on a country road somewhere in upstate New York or New England.

(Passage Buttons and mixed media, imitation sinew, waxed linen, chicken wire)

BS: You use a lot of found materials in your work- photographs, buttons, books, old toys- when did you decide to use such objects in your work?

LK: I was a student at California College of the Arts in Oakland in the late 1980s. I had just gone back to school to finish my undergraduate degree after a hiatus of 13 years during which time I had worked exclusively in batik with political content. At CCA I learned how to make paper. I found I was always trying to age the paper by using tar, dirt, sand and other materials. At some point I decided to give up trying to age something that wasn’t old and just use materials that already had the patina of time built into them. It was a difficult psychological leap for me because I came from a textile tradition which was very labor intensive. I initially felt that I was cheating by using something already made, even though I was aware of Duchamp and the long tradition of artists using found objects. I’ve discovered a way to use found objects in a labor intensive way. I don’t worry about cheating anymore.
(Trophy Sewn found photographs, found text, 9 x 9 x 4-1/2)

BS: I've read that your parents were upholsterers and that as a child you would often play in their shop. Do you think these early memories played a part in your artistic direction? In what other ways did your family influence your artistic growth?

LK: I definitely think that my early family experiences play a large part in my artistic direction. I learned to sew on a machine when I was about eight or nine. I was surrounded by fabric and other sewing items from an early age. While I was still making the batiks I started stuffing and sewing them. That was the beginning of incorporating sewing into my work and I’ve been doing it ever since. I use it as a method of attachment, as a means of embellishment and as a linear element similar to drawing, among other ways.

I grew up a train ride away from Manhattan and my parents took me to museums at an early age. I was fortunate to learn about art by seeing the original works. My parents were politically progressive and we talked about world events at the dinner table. They were very supportive of my decision to be an artist. They sent me to the Art Students’ League on Saturdays. My father got up at an ungodly hour to drive me to the train station, and I would spend the day at class and at museums. I was encouraged and supported every step of the way and for that I am extremely thankful. Also I think that being raised in a secular Jewish tradition contributed to my affinity with those outside the mainstream. This led to the incorporation of political content into my work, which when I was younger took a very literal form and now is more subtle.
(Two Stories About HomeMixed media artist's book/sculpture, 8-1/2 x 15 x 5)

BS: I've also read that you feel a sense of sadness when you purchase old photos for your work- that you feel it should be illegal to own them. Do you feel a sense of guilt when using these photos or do you feel like you are giving new life to the people represented in them? Do you feel a connection with the people in the photos?

LK: At first I felt strange using other people’s memories, just as I felt bad about cutting up my first book. It is an unsettling feeling to be using such personal items that once belonged to anonymous strangers. I have managed to rationalize it by convincing myself that I am in fact giving them new life, although it may not be the life they would have chosen!

I feel a connection with the people whose photos I use in that there is a generic quality to everyone’s photos. I always knew that but it became very clear to me when I pulled out my own family photos to make the buttonworks. We all document birthdays and weddings, we all smile in front of the camera, we all want to remember the places we’ve traveled to by posing in front of interesting backgrounds. A feeling of sadness or melancholy permeates the process, though, because in the last analysis, who wants their most precious memories to end up for sale on a card table at the flea market?

I’ve acquired whole albums of families and once purchased a box containing the personal and professional life of Dick, a man who worked for the phone company in New York in the 1940s through the 1960s. I made several pieces using Dick’s photos and started talking about him to my friends. He became a sort of faux relative, a long-lost uncle. I speculated about the parts of his life that weren’t in the photos, ie., the distinct absence of a wife or children. While working I made up stories about what Dick did after hours.

(Our Kind of FreedomMixed media book collage, 12-3/4 x 9 x 1/2)

BS: You are also known for creating books, though the books you create are not always what they seem. It is as if you have defined what a book can be in your own manner. Your 'books' often address themes which have preoccupied you for many years- loss, the rescuing of memory, cultural and sexual identity, and a critique of the prevailing social values. Care to go into more detail about these issues and the manner in which you create your books?

LK: I started making books while still a graduate student at CCA in 1991. We had an assignment to respond to a fellow student’s work and my response came in the form of a book, Bones Down the Chutes, which was a box of matzohs with "pages" in the form of paper matzohs. In this book I tell a story about my childhood, learning about the Holocaust in Hebrew school, going to Mexico and rejecting my own cultural background for many years, assimilation, and finally the incorporation of my own cultural history as an adult on my own terms. Similar to the buttonworks, this piece seemingly came from nowhere. I had not planned to make a book, but I wanted to tell a very personal story and a book seemed like a good vehicle to do so. After I graduated I continued to make books out of found objects, many of which were about my childhood and family history. I never took a bookmaking class and to this day I don’t know the "right" way to make a book. But I think that helped me to think more creatively about how to put things together and to use materials I might not have otherwise used, everything from rubber, to metal to feminine hygiene products. The books often didn’t look like books, sometimes didn’t even have distinct pages, but they were readable and I thought of them as books. I made this type of book for several years in the early 1990s, then moved on to sculpture and installation. I found, though, that I always returned to books, either between other bodies of work or as distinct bodies of work in and of themselves. Each time the incarnation is different.

I started making altered books from the old books I’d been collecting for years. One of the books I used was a copy of Mein Kampf which I’d bought at a flea market years before. It sat on my bookshelf for years before I decided to cut it up and make four separate altered books out of it.

More recently I began making wall-based book collages by gluing or sewing books open to a particular spread and then using that as a ground for collage. On a trip to Amsterdam last year I came upon boxes of cut-up books that someone had put on the curb on recycling day. I packed up a box of them, took them home and made a series of small book sculptures with them. Currently I am tearing up the entire contents of a book and making small papier mache objects which I then reinsert back into the book. I like the arbitrary way the text gets fragmented and reassembled. These books are of course not readable; they are book sculptures, very abstract, and minimal in their approach but true to my obsessive urges, quite labor intensive. My first one, Useful Drugs, consists of hundreds of tiny balls sewn together with nylon thread and cascading out from the open book. I am excited by the possibilities contained within the medium of the book and want to keep exploring a multitude of ways of using them. I have to keep inventing things to keep myself interested, especially if I am going to spend days wadding up book balls!

I grew up in a house full of books which were revered as almost holy objects. One never dog-eared them, much less took an x-acto knife to them. I love words and reading and the way the print looks on the page. I find it ironic that I eviscerate the very objects that I was taught to hold in utmost esteem.

Content is very important to me. My earlier books were very specifically about my childhood and my life in general. I started out with a theme in mind and then found the materials to make the book. Now I start with the materials more often than not, and see what evolves. Political content often seeps into my work. It is very important to me to not be didactic, to let the process of making the work unfold with me as the facilitator, ie., not to impose my will on it. Not everything has political content, and not everything is serious. In fact, humor plays a very important role in my work. I love puns, I love poking fun at the prevailing values, and I have come to realize that humor makes difficult content more accessible. Humor plays a major role in my life in general so it is fitting that it would also be an important component in my work. It’s a survival mechanism, and also a Jewish tradition, to laugh in the face of adversity. I try to use it whenever I can. When I see someone laughing while reading my books I feel that I have been successful.
(Bisexual Behavior PatternsPhotocopied altered book, 7-1/2 x 6 x 1-1/2)

BS: Where can our readers learn more about your work?

LK: They can go to my website, I am represented by Jenkins Johnson Gallery in New York and Donna Seager Gallery in San Rafael, CA.
I hope that you have enjoyed my interview with Lisa Kokin. Feel free to leave a comment about her work.
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin


Anonymous said...

I like artists that are comfortable with their work. It is something that they do and it is meaningful. I sense that Lisa is truely interested in the lives of others. I like that her work is simple and direct.

toos roozendaal said...

great work
Love your art

toos roozendaal said...

love all the work you make.
Special the buttonworks

toos roozendaal said...

Lisa great art you make.
Love your art

toos roozendaal said...

I like the art lisa make. Like her work.Great artist