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LISA KOKIN: HOW THE WEST WAS SEWN Front cover: Detail of Cowboy #6 (Bent River), 2013 Back cover: Detail of Cowboy #6 (Bent River), 2013 Vintage lace and mixed media, 64.5 x 41 inches Works of art © 2013 Lisa Kokin. All rights reserved. No written portion of this publication may be reproduced, for any reason, by any means, including any method of photographic reproduction, without the written permission of the author. All inquiries regarding the text should be directed to the author. Essay © 2013 Paul Liberatore. No artwork may be reproduced in part or in whole without the written permission of the publisher. Design & Photography © 2013 Lia Roozendaal/ Jagwire Design, El Sobrante, CA Published by Lisa Kokin and Seager Gray Gallery.


23 Sunnyside Avenue Mill Valley, California 94941





LISA KOKIN BOISE ART MUSEUM October 5, 2013 – April 27, 2014 and other selected works

SEAGERGRAY.COM | (415) 384-8288

















by paul liberatore

There is no more iconic symbol of America than

She had been so repulsed by them that she’d

the gunslinging cowboy. In Hollywood movies

never examined them closely. She Googled

and western novels, the flinty-eyed cowpoke

guns, and then proceeded to disarm them,

has been endlessly glamorized for winning the

to render them impotent. One cowboy, for

West at the point of a pistol, shooting first and

example, shoots little fabric hearts out of his

asking questions later.

revolver. Another fires three pink pompoms.

In her solo show at the Boise Art Museum, How

While social commentary is at the heart of

the West Was Sewn (through April 27, 2014),

Kokin’s work, there is nothing heavy-handed

artist Lisa Kokin takes aim, through the beauty

or obvious in the way she presents her

of her art, at the myth of the cowboy and its

nearly life-size cowboy figures. She captures

use by opponents of reasonable gun control

them striking macho poses inspired by the

laws, who argue that gun ownership is part of

romanticized violence on the illustrated covers

our American heritage.

of old Western pulp novels she discovered at a

In her “Lace Cowboy” series, Kokin repurposes

local recycling center.

vintage lace and found fabrics to create

In the past, she wouldn’t have been attracted

cowboys and their guns that are, in her words,


“frilly and ephemeral, mere shadows of their

with titles like Blood Reckoning and Night

former intimidating selves. The guns are in the

of Vengeance, but they grew on her, and

hands of ineffectual cowboys.”

eventually gave her the ideas that sparked a

Before she could recreate the firearms in fabric, she had to research what they look like.





series of work that is being showcased in an important museum exhibition. 21


“The older books are the best, mostly from the

Rogers, Gene Autry, and right-wing hero John

1940s and ’50s,” Kokin says. “When you look

Wayne, Kokin’s cowboys may stir feelings of

at the cowboys on the covers and some of their

nostalgia, but to label them as kitsch would

stances, you can see why some people read

be missing their intellectual content and

them as gay. I love the lace, I love the material,

commentary on the gun culture as well as the

I love the sewing, I love making them and I

roughshod political policy that is so prevalent

chuckle over the homoerotic subtext going on. I

in this country. “I know other governments

noticed it right away. There are a whole bundle

do this, too,” the artist concedes, “but this

of contradictions.”

is a commentary on my government, on my

She cleverly points out those contradictions


with her feminine fabrics and humorous

From the beginning of her distinguished

touches that rearrange and recontextualize the

career, Kokin has been a political artist, first

over the top machismo of the source material.

creating batiks to protest the Vietnam War and

Her Cowboy #6 (Bent River), for instance, has

to support solidarity movements in Chile and

a cigarette dangling from his lips and a cute

Latin America. Later, she designed posters

little kitten sewn into the sleeve of his fancy

for progressive causes in a graphics collective

shirt. Cowboy #4 (Puppy and Kitty) does him

and helped build apartment houses in Cuba.

one better, sporting a puppy and a kitty on his

She has never been afraid to tackle the largest



Among war babies and baby boomers who




genocide and now gun violence.

grew up with Western movie heroes like Roy 23


But there is a softer, more interpersonal aspect

The title is a play on the word “antimacassar,”

of her aesthetic. While studying at the California

the doily-like cloths that used to be placed on

College of the Arts, she began working with

the backs or arms of chairs to keep them from

found materials: photographs, buttons and

being soiled. Kokin has a keen sense of humor,

other common objects from flea markets that

a love of word play, and an inability to resist a

used to belong to real people, and now only

little inside textile joke.

represent their discarded memories.

The daughter of upholsterers, Kokin has fabric

She explores those feelings of memory and

and sewing in her DNA, but it bothers her to

personal history with the old paperbacks that

be described as a fiber artist or textile artist,

she resurrected and reused for this series.

feeling it diminishes the conceptual nature of

“Who is the person who owned them?”

her book-based art. She works in mixed media,

she wonders. “Were they excavated from

and her pieces are so finely crafted that they

somebody’s basement? Did someone die? I

are sometimes collected for their beauty alone.

think about things like that.”

They do look fabulous on the wall, but there

For a part of the series she titled “AntiMassacre,” she stitches cowboy imagery from the pulp novels into a cafe curtain and other small squares of found cloth, juxtaposing so-

is nothing anodyne about what she does. Her art has bite. Underneath the skilled needlework and graceful designs is an element of subtle subversion.

called “women’s work” with the lawlessness and bloodshed of the vintage books. 25


This is slyly evident in pieces such as Vaquero

Bandit. Vaquero Vine takes its name from the

Vine and Rustle, vine- and branch-shaped

cowpoke on one of the leaves wrapping his



wounded arm with a bloody bandage in his

fragments of the Wild West book covers into




mouth. Rustle, her most recent piece, includes

leaf and pod shapes that cast intricate shadows

pods fashioned from aspen catkins.

on the walls. If you look closely, you can make out lurid images and shards of text incorporated from cowboy novels from the 1930s, 40s and 50s, which say things like “would die,” “you kill,” “vengeance,” and “no jail could hold him.” The sensationalized violence from the books is in jarring contrast to the aesthetically appealing horticultural imagery of this new work. She began creating organic thread pieces after moving to a wooded neighborhood in Northern California. What she cleverly calls “fauxliage” is a reflection of the plants and leaves, butterflies and birds’ nests she found in her verdant

With this extraordinary body of work, we are 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 a contemporary artist whose work will be long remembered. Paul Liberatore is a columnist and feature writer for the Marin Independent Journal and a former reporter and assistant city editor for the San Francisco Chronicle. His nonfiction book, “The Road to Hell,” published by Atlantic Monthly Press, is now available as an e-edition.

new surroundings. For the Western series, she incorporated rattlesnake grass in one piece titled, appropriately enough, Rattlesnake 27





List of Works Front & Back Cover Cowboy #6 (Bent River), details Page 3 Cowboy #6 (Bent River) Vintage lace and mixed media 64.5 x 41 inches, 2013 Page 6 B Vintage textile, thread 25 x 15 inches, 2013 Page 8 – 9 Cowboy #7 (La Vie en Rose) and detail Vintage lace and mixed media 46 x 41 inches, 2013 Page 10 – 11 Cowboy #5 (El Muerto) and detail Vintage lace and mixed media 60 x 34 inches, 2013 Page 12 – 13 Cowboy #4 (Puppy and Kitty) and detail Vintage lace and mixed media 58.5 x 30 inches, 2013 Page 14 – 15 Cowboy #3 (Rooster) and detail Vintage lace and mixed media 42 x 23 inches, 2013

Page 16 – 17 Cowboy #2 (Grapeleaf) and detail Vintage lace and mixed media 39.5 x 34 inches, 2013 Page 18 – 19 Cowboy #1 (Heart Gun) and detail Vintage lace and mixed media 36 x 26 inches, 2013 Page 20 Podner #1 and detail Cowboy book pages, beeswax, wire, batting, thread 73.5 x 36 x 12.5 inches, 2013 Page 21 Podner #1, detail Page 22 Podner #2 and detail Cowboy book pages, beeswax, wire, batting, thread 58 x 30 x 12.5 inches, 2013

Page 26 Rustle Cowboy book covers, wire, mull, batting, thread 55.5 x 35 x 13.5 inches, 2013 Page 27 Rustle, details Page 28 Vaquero Vine, detail Page 29 Vaquero Vine Cowboy book covers, wire, mull, batting, thread 56 x 48 x 8 inches, 2013 Page 30 Rattlesnake Bandit, detail

Page 23 Podner #2, detail

Page 31 Rattlesnake Bandit and detail 78 x 36 x 10 inches, 2013

Page 24 Flower Power, detail Vintage textile, thread 24 x 22.5 inches, 2013

Page 34 History of Western Civilization Vintage textile, thread 7.25 x 7.25 inches, 2013

Page 25 (left) White Cowboy, detail Vintage textile, thread 12 x 12 inches, 2013

For a complete listing of art work and exhibitions please visit: LISAKOKIN.COM


Page 25 (right) Counted Crossfire Vintage textile, thread 21.5 x 17.5 inches, 2013

Selected Solo Exhibitions 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2007 2004 2002 2001 2000 1999 1997 1996 1995 1994 1992 1991 1989 1988 1986 1985 1984

Chapters: A Twenty-Year Retrospective of Book Art by Lisa Kokin Richmond Art Center, Richmond, CA Root and Branch, Seager Gray Gallery, Mill Valley, CA How the West Was Sewn, Boise Art Museum, Boise, ID In Another Vein, Gail Severn Gallery, Ketchum, ID Raveling, Seager Gray Gallery, Mill Valley, CA Speaking Volumes, Tayloe Piggott Gallery, Jackson, WY Panacea Plus, Donna Seager Gallery, San Rafael, CA Joy of Booking, Mendocino College, Ukiah, CA Ex Libro, Donna Seager Gallery, San Rafael, CA Fruit of the Broom, Jenkins Johnson Gallery, New York, NY Attachments, Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco, CA Secondhand Memories: Sewn Found Photographs, Gallery Connexion, Fredericton, NB, Canada Domestic Intelligence: Books by Lisa Kokin, San Francisco Public Library, San Francisco, CA Relative Obscurity, Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco, CA Salvaged Histories, Nine Gallery, Portland, OR Sew to Speak, Kennedy Art Center, Holy Names University, Oakland, CA Lost and Found, Island Mountain Arts, Wells, BC, Canada Bookmaking Is Not a Crime, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC Flea Market Economy, Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco, CA Art Book Art, Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco, CA Circumstances Beyond Our Control, Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco, CA Remembrance, Buchenwald Memorial, Weimar-Buchenwald, Germany Fond Objects, Morphos Gallery, San Francisco, CA Tome Is Where the Art Is, Gallery Connexion, Fredericton, NB, Canada Tales of a Nice Jewish Girl and Unearthing, Definitely Superior, Thunder Bay, Ont., Canada and Artcite, Windsor, Ont., Canada Remembrance, Judah Magnes Museum, Berkeley, CA Persistent Memory, The Lab, San Francisco, CA Award of Excellence Show, Surface Design National Conference, Gatlinburg, TN Vestiges: Work in Fiber by Lisa Kokin, Pitt International Galleries, Vancouver, BC, Canada Batiks and Drawings of Lisa Kokin, The Women’s Building, San Francisco, CA The Batiks of Lisa Kokin, Centro Cultural Vergueiro, São Paulo, Brazil Daybreak: Nicaragua/El Salvador, Galerie Franz Mehring, Berlin, Germany The Past Will Not Return, Exploratorium, California State University, Los Angeles, CA Lisa Kokin’s Studio at Galería de la Raza, San Francisco, CA




Lisa Kokin  
Lisa Kokin  

How The West Was Sewn