Liza Lou's artwork is most dramatically characterized as being made of an awesome and thorough application of glass beads. Her art is distinguished by the thousands of glued beads that cover every surface of her life-sized sculptures and environments. Lou recalls: "I began as a painter and I walked into a bead store and it was just like a flash in my mind. I just thought, my god, that's the most amazing paint I've ever seen: this is the most amazing tone; the most amazing color; the most amazing kind of light that you can work with." I thought, "how great. Put that in your sculpture. Put that on your canvas."
Lou explores the theme of isolation and confinement with her most recent sculpture, "Maximum Security" (2007-08). The sculpture consists of two long corridors made of chain-link security fencing that is completely covered in reflective glass beads. The two corridors intersect in an X configuration, and there are no gates, no way in or out. The stark and brutal symbol of imprisonment is in stark contrast to the sparkling and seductive coating. The vibrant visual impact of the work distracts the viewer from the seriousness of the subject matter, and focuses awareness on the extremely labor intensive process involved in it's creation.
The sculpture was made in Durban, South Africa, with the assistance of a group of Zulu men and women and required a year to complete. "Maximum Security" resonates with allusions to worldwide brutality, including the period of South African apartheid and references to concentration camps and compounds in Bosnia, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo. Lou's careful, considerate, and exhaustive application of every single bead parallels the endless hours prisoners are confined in such cells and suggests that she has sentenced herself to the endless frustration of its completion and her release, while simultaneously bestowing fondness and warmth to an object of cruel captivity.
"Maximum Security" is part of a larger body of work that Lou has been working on over the past three years and that continues her exploration of urgent social and political issues through large-scale sculptures and environments. These include a new series of works called "Reliefs," that are densely layered, beaded panels which recall Muslim prayer rugs on which they are partly based, while being reminiscent of topographical maps of cities, abstract art, and mysterious altars; and "Continuous Mile," a mile-long rope woven entirely out of cotton and bone-white beads. All of the new work shows an artist deeply engaged with her medium, pushing it in new and astonishing directions to create work of quiet, confident beauty while simultaneously highlighting the religious and geo-political tension that mark our present age.
Lou's earlier pieces displayed more optimistic themes, although concerned with seclusion, such as "Kitchen" (1991-94), a full-scale room whose counters, cupboards, sink, dishes, faucet, and gushing water are all rendered in rows and whorls of colored beads. She also created "Back Yard" (1995-99), a 600 square-foot environment that includes a glistening picnic table, checkered table cloth, flowers, lawnmower, clothesline, and barbecue all setting on a blazing lawn of over a million green glass beads; and "Trailer" (2001), a 1949 Airstream with an interior of beaded guns, hunting books and decor, cheap western paintings, a typewriter, a cluttered, messy kitchen, and finally, a glimpse of a leg lying suspiciously still on the bedroom floor next to a handgun.
Lou acknowledges a shift toward a more sombre subject matter: "I really was taking objects and using them in order to describe a feeling of despair, loneliness, isolation--It's that I got interested in the darker side and making it visually seductive. That's always my aim, to bring you in and tell a story."
Liza Lou was born in New York City in 1969, and lives and works in Durban, South Africa, and Los Angeles. She has had recent exhibitions at L & M Arts, New York; White Cube, London; Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris; and Deitch Projects, New York; and in museum exhibitions at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris; Santa Monica Museum of Art, California; Fundacio Joan Miro, Barcelona; New Museum, New York; and Los Angeles County Museum of Art.