Given the number of altered texts present at Ex Libro, Lisa Kokin's current show at the Donna Seager Gallery, one could joke whether it's a show for text-ophiles or for text-ophobes. Ex Libro is full of pulped paper and disemboweled, reconstructed books: Dr. Seuss-like hoodoo structures made out of dictionary pages, which in their second life look like larger versions of those little balls of paper that get stuck in the back pocket of your jeans when washed; the covers of pulp Westerns with their images obscured by tangled webs of bookbinder's thread; and pretty much anything else you could imagine that might be made "from the book," which is what Ex Libro means.
The show -- 2 years in the making -- is large, with a lot of physical content that is found on the walls, installed on the gallery floor or hung from the ceiling, and on the back table. The latter category includes "Flotsam and Jetsam," a book made of two layers of bubble wrap with debris trapped in the bubbles, including rubber bands, shredded money, and a telegram about the death of a loved one. The layers of bubble wrap are held together with a zipper, leaving you with four options: allow the collection to stay in place and enjoy the sounds it makes as you flip the pages, unzip it carefully and see what spills out, pop the dang thing, or do nothing.
I spent a lot of time with "Flotsam and Jetsam," which I found quite moving, only to discover after leaving that it is actually not part of the current body of work, but something from Kokin's back catalogue.
The rest of the show involves a lot of visual punning. A book called "How to Think" has been gutted and reshaped to look like a tangled set of synapses, while another, "The Bride's Dowry", has a hole cut on either side of its cover through which a pear-shaped, reassembled ball of text pokes its pregnant belly (or bellies, actually). "Sew Not in Anger" has been sewn shut and stabbed with stitches that will leave home ec teachers groaning and medical practitioners nervous.
Not every piece is a one-liner, and the themes can be quite serious -- Kokin, a Bay Area artist, often deals with identity, memory, and politics -- but at times things feel too tidy. Kokin sticks to a one-to-one ratio, with the physical contents she takes from each book generally staying of a piece, including the titles. I'd love to see her work in a less directly illustrative manner. It feels disingenuous for the end results of deconstruction to be so neatly transformed, although that's probably because I'm the type of text-ophile that wants things left muddy and ambiguous, a little unclear as to what the signifier might be pointing to.
Ex Libro runs until March 31, 2009. Lisa Kokin will be giving an artist's talk at the gallery on Sunday, March 8, 2009, at 3 pm.