Working between studios her in the USA and South Africa, Liza Lou uses glass beads as her primary art material. Her process, by necessity slow and meticulous, examines themes of confinement, endurance, labour and repetition. Lou describes the world by enshrining ordinary objects and mundane environments, elevating the commonplace to the extraordinary.
Sometimes taking years to complete, Lou’s sculptural works often correspond to the form of objects or environments from everyday life. For Kitchen, 1991–96, the artist created a life-sized domestic kitchen using hundreds of thousands of multi-coloured glass beads. Lou has also explored more violent forms of confinement, as with Security Fence, 2005, which consists of a chain-link enclosure topped with razor wire with no entry or exit, transforming it with a frost of crystalline silver beads. Awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 2002, Lou travelled to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and in 2005 founded a studio working with previously unemployed women. Deeply versed in the tradition of beadwork, the women assist Lou in realising her larger scale works. The studio is also an example of how art can help to generate real social change. Lou created a place of safety, education and empowerment; an environment where the labour of making art engendered real economic benefits for the practitioners and the wider community.
At the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Lou presents The Clouds, 2015–18, an installation comprising a panoramic grid of 600 individual cloths, each hand-woven from glass beads, offering the viewer a simultaneously macroscopic and microscopic view of the world. From afar, The Clouds appears predominantly white in colour, taking on the appearance of the natural phenomena for which it is named. Closer inspection reveals the surface of each cloth is infused with streaks and stains; natural oils unconsciously left by human hands. Subtle shifts of tone celebrate the beauty of errors made in the struggle for perfection. Lou has introduced oil paint to some areas and has intentionally crushed others, the destruction revealing the delicate underlying structure hidden within each hand-woven piece.