Liza Lou’s “The Clouds” is monumental. At 23 feet high and 50 feet wide, the work is made up of thousands of glass beads that she painted and then shattered with a hammer. Surrounded by a series of sculptures and wall reliefs as well as a variety of large-scale drawings, it acts as the centerpiece of “Classification and Nomenclature of Clouds,” Lou’s latest exhibition that takes up two of Lehmann Maupin’s New York gallery spaces, including a brand new one on West 24th Street.
Lou, who was born in New York, now divides her time between Durban, South Africa, where she has employed a cadre of bead workers, and Los Angeles. Having won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2002 for her works “Kitchen” and “Back Yard”—which respectively recreated a full-sized, 168-square-foot kitchen made entirely out of beads and a full-sized, 525-square-foot backyard also made of beads—the 49-year-old is no stranger to works that are at once colossal and hyper-detailed.
“Classification and Nomenclature of Clouds” continues along in that vein but is exceptionally more multidisciplinary, bringing together not only her beadwork but also her sculptural and drawn work to create her most comprehensive exhibition yet. Lou spoke to Modern Painters about growing up as an “ordinary” outsider, the sociopolitical significance of beadwork and the effects of place on art.
Modern Painters: Your art school professors didn’t take your choice of beads as a medium seriously, so you dropped out of university and went to work as a waitress and salesgirl to support yourself. Would you say you’ve had an outsider’s ascent?
Liza Lou: My struggle was ordinary. I was just doing what I had to do — mainly, to find ways to survive and to do my work. That I didn’t come up through academia or a privileged background is part of my strength, though at the time I didn’t know that. I was just doing everything I could to make the work I wanted to make, and I wasn’t going to let lack of money or support stop me.
Contrary to what those professors said, why are beads such serious business?
Beads are a material rich in cultural associations, but I’m always trying to push the material outward and toward something universal, trying to set it free from its cultural baggage. They interest me in the sense that they are a humble material and truly difficult to work with, and also, I like it that they are round. In the Platonic myth of early humankind, people were round in the shape of a mandala. It’s a primal shape. Roundness suggests a state of oneness.
Your current exhibition includes paintings, sculptures, drawings and videos, and takes place in not one but two of Lehmann Maupin’s New York galleries. What made you decide on such an expansive show?
It’s a body of work that evolved over three years. My interests had to do with biological and natural phenomenon. I made two distinct bodies of work over three years, one to do with cloud phenomenon and the other, more closely resembling molecular structures. Once completed, we realized that we needed more space to exhibit all of the work, and decided to show the work in two separate spaces, one at the 22nd Street gallery as well as the main exhibition at the new space on 24th Street.
How is physical space vital to your art?
Working with architecture and thinking about how the work might be experienced in a space is something I always take into consideration. Getting inspired by a space can be central to a new body of work. This exhibition was challenging in the sense that the space didn’t exist yet when I was working. Even though we had floor plans, the experience of the space is always completely different than what it looks like on paper. There were surprises once we installed. Chief among them was the experience of natural light in the space, the expansive windows and the fact that you can see actual clouds from the windows on any given day.
What do you hope people take from this exhibition?
There is a desire, probably unrealistic on my part, but here goes: to slow viewers down a bit. To make work that inspires contemplation, that would be a good response. More than anything, though, the work is a dialogue I am having with it, and so the best feeling at the end of a body of work is a sense of having realized something ineffable, something like a third dynamic, and to have yet more curiosity to want to take things further.
How does your work dialogue with labor practices and feminism, especially given the labor-intensive beadwork required?
Although there are areas of my work that relate to labor and feminism, my work tends to fly outside of practical definitions. My tendency toward long-term, labor intensive work has to do with an understanding of work as prayer. My religious upbringing taught ‘hands to work, heart to God.’ Also, I was raised by a single mom, no men in sight, and so a feminist point of view was a matter of survival. That’s the personal aspect. Zooming outward, I became interested in working in parts of the world where working in community has other associations and meanings, and where I could possibly make a difference. Winding my way out of theory, working out of a personal place and into practice, definitions clatter to the floor.
The title of this exhibition is inspired by an early 19th-century amateur meteorologist’s paper called “Essay on the Modification of Clouds.” What is it about that paper’s author Luke Howard and his work that resonated with you?
It started with a fascination and curiosity about clouds. Looking at painters — Turner, Constable and others — that’s when I found Luke Howard. He looked at clouds, studied them in depth and formed names for them that were expansive enough that even poets and artists were inspired. Howard didn’t name things and then limit them; he named them and opened up a whole discourse. Poets must have thought him to be a kind of cosmic translator.
How does living between L.A. and South Africa affect your work? Does place and movement invariably affect art?
Place very much affects my work, but this was not always the case for me. It was a conscious decision to allow a sense of place to seep in, to change me, to inform my work. When I first started working in South Africa, I had very specific projects that I would work on and it was about training a group of women to work with beads in a way that are very specific to my vision. At a certain point, though, things started to go wrong in the environment around us. There would be uprisings, xenophobic attacks, moments of political unrest and tension, and meanwhile, we would be applying ourselves to a very precise task. I realized that I was not allowing heartbreak, loss, death — some of the things happening around us — to affect the work. I made a shift and began to invite work that more closely resembled what was going on. This meant that the work became more abstract, less emphasis on perfection, more interest in the cracks.
These days, I commission work in South Africa from the collective that I founded there, but I mostly work in LA. What I find working in LA is the ability to go for days without talking or seeing anyone apart from people closest to me. When the cobwebs grow around my car door, I know I’m in a good place. The result has been in work that is much more personal, shows my gesture: painting, drawing, and a video that records the sounds I make while I work.
What’s next for you?
Part of the exhibition included a drawing and video component. This is something I am exploring further. Also, I feel as though I opened Pandora’s box with regards to using beads as surface ground to paint upon, so there is much more to explore there, too.