Lisa Kokin at the Boise Art Museum. Works available at Seager Gray, Mill Valley

Donna Seager Liberatore
Apr 3, 2014 4:28PM

Lisa Kokin: How The West Was Sewn by Paul Liberatore

There is no more iconic symbol of America than the gunslinging cowboy. In Hollywood movies and western novels, the flinty-eyed cowpoke has been endlessly glamorized for winning the west at the point of a pistol, shooting first and asking questions later.

In her show at the Boise Art Museum, “How the West Was Sewn” (through April 27, 2014,) artist Lisa Kokin takes aim, through the beauty of her art, at the myth of the cowboy and its use by opponents of reasonable gun control laws, who argue that gun ownership is part of our American heritage.

In her “Lace Cowboy” series, Kokin repurposes vintage lace and found fabrics to create cowboys and their guns that are, in her words, “frilly and ephemeral, mere shadows of their former intimidating selves. The guns are in the hands of ineffectual cowboys.”

Before she could recreate the firearms in fabric, though, she had to know what they look like. But she had been so repulsed by them that she’d never examined them closely. So she Googled guns, then proceeded to disarm them, to render them impotent. One cowboy, for example, shoots little fabric hearts out of his revolver. Another fires three pink puff balls.

While social commentary is at the heart of Kokin’s work, there is nothing heavy-handed or obvious in the way she presents her nearly life-size cowboy figures. She captures them striking macho poses inspired by the romanticized violence on the illustrated covers of old western pulp novels she discovered at a white elephant sale.

In the past, she wouldn’t have been attracted to these Louis Lamour-style melodramas with titles like “Blood Reckoning” and “Night of Vengeance.” But they grew on her, and eventually gave her the ideas that sparked a series of work that is being showcased in an important museum exhibition. “The older books are the best, mostly from the 1940s and ’50s,” she says one afternoon in her Northern California studio. “When you look at the cowboys on the covers and some of their stances, you can see why some people read them as gay. I love the lace, I love the material, I love the sewing, I love making them and I chuckle over the homoerotic subtext going on.I noticed it right away. There’s this whole bundle of contradictions.”

She cleverly points out those contradictions with her feminine fabrics and humorous touches that rearrange and recontextualize the over the top machismo of the source material. Her Cowboy #6, “Bent River,” for instance, has a cigarette dangling from his lips and a cute little kitten sewn into the sleeve of his fancy shirt. Cowboy #4 does him one better, sporting a puppy and a kitty on his chaps.

Among war babies and baby boomers who grew up with western movie heroes like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry and right-wing hero John Wayne, Kokin’s cowboys may stir feelings of nostalgia, but to label them as kitsch would be missing their intellectual content and commentary on the gun culture and roughshod political policy that is so prevalent in this country.

“I know other governments do this, too,” the artist concedes, “But this is a commentary on my government, on my country.”

From the beginning of her distinguished career, Kokin has been a political artist, first creating batiks to protest the Vietnam War and to support solidarity movements in Chile and Latin America. Later, she designed posters for progressive causes in a graphics collective and helped build apartment houses in Cuba. She has never been afraid to tackle the largest socio-political issues: racism, censorship, genocide and now gun violence.

But there is a softer, more interpersonal aspect of her aesthetic. While studying at the 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.

She explores those feelings of memory and personal history with the old paperbacks that she resurrected and reused for this series.

“Who is the person who owned them?,” she wonders. “Were they excavated from somebody’s basement. Did someone die? I think about things like that.”

For a part of this series she titled “Anti-Massacre,”she stitches cowboy imagery from the pulp novels into a cafe curtain and other small squares of found cloth, juxtaposing so-called “women’s work” with the lawlessness and bloodshed of the vintage books.

Most people may not get it, but the title is a play on the word “macassar,” the doily-like cloths that used to be placed on the backs or arms of chairs to keep them from being soiled. Kokin has a keen sense of humor, a love of word play and an inability to resist a little inside textile joke.

The daughter of upholsterers, Kokin has fabric and sewing in her DNA. But it bothers her to be described as a fiber artist or textile artist, feeling it diminishes the conceptual nature of her book-based art. She works in mixed media, and her pieces are so finely crafted that they are sometimes collected for their beauty alone. They do look fabulous on the wall. But there is nothing anodyne about what she does. Her art has bite. Underneath the skilled needlework and graceful designs is an element of subtle subversion.

This is slyly evident in the “Lost River” and “Buckaroo” series — vine and branch-shaped hanging installations she creates sewing fragments of the wild west book covers into leaf and pod shapes that cast intricate shadows on the walls. If you look closely, you can make out lurid images and shards of text, incorporated from “Lost River Buckaroos,” a cowboy novel from the 1930s, saying things like “would die,” “you kill,” “vengeance” and “no jail could hold him.” The sensationalized violence from the book is in jarring contrast to the aesthetically appealing horticultural imagery of this new work.

She began creating these 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 new surroundings. For the western series, she incorporated rattlesnake grass in one piece titled, appropriately enough, “Rattlesnake Bandit.” “Vaquero Vine” takes its name from the cowpoke on one of the leaves wrapping his wounded arm with a bloody bandage in his mouth. The newest piece includes pods fashioned from aspen tassels.

 With this extraordinary body of work, 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 a contemporary artist whose work will be long remembered.  

Donna Seager Liberatore