With an emphasis on repetition, formal perfection and materiality, Liza Lou’s sculptures and environments thrive on the tension between the apparent impossibility of their construction, the seductive beauty of their surfaces and the often sinister implications of their subject matter.
Lou first gained attention when her monumental work Kitchen was shown at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, NY, in 1996. This sculptural tableau introduced her trademark medium of glass beads, while simultaneously establishing many of the social themes – such as labour, confinement and human endurance – that continue to underpin her work today. Architectural in scale, Kitchen is a work of exacting labour and is a monument to uncelebrated women’s work. Lou worked alone over a five-year period to realise Kitchen.
Other works continue to explore psychological spaces and structures of confinement. 'Trailer' (1999-2001) is a twelve-metre-long mobile home (caravan) whose contents have been transformed into a film-noir tableau. Every inch of the interior is layered with black, white and silver beads. Next to a beaded sofa, on a coffee table strewn with men’s magazines, lies a bottle of Jack Daniels. In a beaded typewriter there is what might be a beaded suicide note, and, visible in the glow of the TV, a shape that could be the body of a man. These elements combine to generate an unsettling atmosphere of male violence and menace.
Since 2007, Lou has been creating a series called ‘Reliefs’. Each one of these unique panels, created with glass beads standing on their tips, bring to mind patterned prayer rugs from the Caucasus region, while at the same time they are reminiscent of topographical maps, organisms or crumbling cities. 'Find, Fix, Finish' (2007-08) is a large-scale panel covered in 200 kg of soot-black beads of various sizes, each one meticulously balancing on its tip to create ridges and valleys arranged in a precise geometric pattern. The dark magnificence of the work and the pleasure we might find in the rhythmic surface is offset by a mood of palpable threat. 'Offensive/Defensive' (2008) has an even surface of mesmerising, vibrant colour overlaid by an organic black pattern, as if the object itself were stained by a creeping mould or corrosive liquid. The ‘Reliefs’ show an artist deeply engaged with her medium, creating work of quiet, confident beauty while simultaneously highlighting the spiritual and geo-political tensions that mark our present age.
Over the past several years, while living and working in South Africa, Liza Lou has developed a body of work based upon further ideas of confinement and protection. Security Fence (2005) is a full-scale, silver beaded enclosure of chain-link and razor wire that can neither be entered nor exited. Barricade (2007-08) is a gate-like structure that Lou has encased in 24-karat-gold beads, but provides neither protection nor safety. Continuous Mile is a coiled and stacked rope measuring a mile in length, woven entirely out of glossy black, or bone-white beads, made with a team of Zulu bead workers in the townships of KwaZulu Natal. Conceived as a work about work, Continuous Mile is exquisitely hand-wrought and manifests the social concerns that run throughout the artist’s work. Continuous Mile has led to the making of Endless Mile, a major five-year project launching the Endless Mile Foundation, to benefit artisans and their families by providing sustainable income, health services, scholarships and social services.
Liza Lou was born in 1969 in New York. She lives and works in Los Angeles and KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Solo exhibitions include ‘Color Field’, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, California (2013); ‘Let the Light In’, SCAD Museum of Art, Georgia (2011); Lever House, New York, 2008; Museum Kunst Palast, Düsseldorf (2002); ‘Leaves of Glass’, Henie Oslo Kunstsenter, Oslo (2002); ‘Liza Lou II’, Bass Museum of Art, Miami, Florida (2001); Smithsonian Institution of American Art, Washington DC (2000); and ‘Back Yard’, Fundacio Joan Miró, Barcelona (1998). Among numerous group exhibitions, her work has recently been included in ‘The Artist’s Museum’, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2010); ‘Skin Fruit: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Collection’, New Museum, New York (2010); ‘Monument to Now’, Deste Foundation for Contemporary Art, Athens (2004); ‘Splat, Boom, Pow: Cartoons in Contemporary Art’, Contemporary Art Museum, Houston (2004); ‘Give and Take’, Serpentine Gallery and Victoria and Albert Museum, London (2001); Biennale de Lyon d’art Contemporain (2000); and Taipei Biennial (2000). Among other honours, Lou received the Anonymous Was a Woman Award in 2013 and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 2002.