A beaded materiality for art and sculpture–In conversation with artist Liza Lou
My first exposure to artist Liza Lou's work was Color Field. The bright pop of colors, the infinite, upright stalks, and the intense sensation of truly being within a 'field', all created from tiny glass beads, was hard to step away from. I was, at once overwhelmed by the monumental effort it would have taken to create this piece of art, and awed by the idea of a small, seemingly insignificant element–the glass bead–coming into its own this way.
Returning home, I found myself catching up and reading about the preceding twenty years (at the time) of beautiful and bold art and sculpture created by Liza.
At the time, in 2013, Color Field had first opened to the public, at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Since then, Liza's largest work to date has traveled to several locations; and was seen most recently at the Neuberger Museum of Art, in New York.
In 1996, Liza's work came to prominence in the art world in a massive way. Through Kitchen –a to-scale and completely equipped replica of a kitchen that was covered in minuscule glass beads–Liza announced her unique medium, message, and her painstaking process. Kitchen took five years to create and remains, today, in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
As a young designer, it is hard to fathom such a lengthy commitment to a piece of art or sculpture. Even more difficult, is to continue to use the materiality of glass beads exclusively, and convey complex themes of social relevance, over a period of several years. But Liza has done this and by doing so, challenged the perception of beads as a material, and indeed widened what 'art' can be. She often cloaks darker themes and ideas in the shimmery medium of beads, forcing a viewer to be infatuated, puzzled and eventually contemplative about the content.
In 2005, Liza moved from Los Angeles to Durban, South Africa, where she has established a studio with a community of women Zulu bead workers. Hers is a unique studio model, and through the employment of the bead workers, it feeds into the upliftment of the local community and celebration of traditional craft techniques. Like other tangible materials, the labor and efforts of the community of women, feed into Liza's works, making them richer and imbued with meaning.
We spoke with Liza recently and asked her a few questions about her process and one-of-a-kind art. Here is that conversation:
MD: Liza, Your work has been challenging the perception of beads as an artistic medium, since it first came to light in the 1990's. We feel strongly that your art illustrates to the world, the power of the smallest of artistic tools–glass beads. Is the intent then, to celebrate these tiny beads and their impact?
Liza: I use the material very deliberately, and often it becomes a counterpoint to the subject matter. For example, Security Fence, has a crystalline, seductive surface and yet it is a menacing object. Or in the case of The Damned, an 8-foot-tall sculpture taken after Massacio’s painting of Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Using bodybuilders as models, I sculpted the figures to be resplendent. Covered in glass beads, they seem like trophies of physical beauty, and yet it is a moment of deepest shame. Most recently, I have used the material as a kind of container or talisman for the process itself. The beads hold the sweat and dirt of the hand. The works are labor intensive objects that carry no subject matter, other than the effort that went into their realization.
MD: We love how your work can appeal to a broad spectrum of viewers, and appears to have many layers of meaning. Children, adults and people directly impacted by the social issues you often represent are all drawn to your work. Which is the audience that you wish to reach out to the most through your work?
Liza: Ultimately, I make work for myself, and I hope that other people will eventually be interested and that the work will reach people on different levels and have meaning for all kinds of individuals. I hope that my work can create a sort of respite or quiet space for contemplation. The critic, Peter Schjeldahl once said, that "looking at art, we rehearse responses to anything that matters." It’s the hope that in looking, in experiencing art and in taking the time to notice our own responses, we practice the art of attention, and this can spill over into other areas of our lives.
MD: Has working with the Zulu bead workers impacted and shaped your process and techniques since you began collaborating with them in 2005?
Liza: Working with other people, influences and changes the way that I think, whether they be Zulu bead workers in South Africa or 500 volunteers in Westchester County, New York, working on a 1,500 square foot installation of Color Field. However, I’m not interested in borrowing from other people’s culture or techniques or ideas. I am very much my own person with a strong sense of what it is we are making and the direction the work is going to take. I think of myself as a choreographer, working with sets of hands that have different skill sets and matching those skill sets to a project.
MD: You represent strong themes such as feminism, confinement, and even violence through your work, with glass beads. Do you ever feel challenged or limited by this medium?
Liza: The challenges and limitations of the material are what interest me most!
MD: Your work benefits local bead workers in Africa, by providing livelihood and pride in their traditional craft. Have you seen this percolate down to other workers in the community, even those who aren't associated with your studio?
Liza: Sharing is very much an African ethos. There is the Zulu phrase, 'Umuntu Ubuntu', which means 'I am because we are.' The women in my studio are leaders in their communities, and they do a great deal to help others as a result of their own good fortune and hard work. Offering training and jobs is the gold standard in terms of making a difference to communities, but there is always so much more we can do and that we are trying to do.
MD: Liza, Would you like to share with us what projects you are currently working on?
Liza: I’m preparing for a show at Lehmann Maupin in Hong Kong, that opens January 2017. It’s a new series of woven paintings, called 'ingxube.'