By Charlie Schultz
It’s been ten years since Liza Lou has had a solo exhibition in New York, and more than twenty years since the daring curator, Marcia Tucker, brought Lou’s mind boggling beaded sculpture, The Kitchen (1991 – 1996), to the New Museum and effectively introduced the artist to the art world. Since then Lou has established and maintained a studio in Durban, South Africa, where she works alongside a dedicated team to create beaded sculptures—and now paintings—that have become increasingly less figurative over time. The title of her exhibition, The Classification and Nomenclature of Clouds, draws upon an essay from 1802 by Luke Howard, a chemist and amateur meteorologist, wherein the author gives clouds the names we still use today. The centerpiece of this exhibition is a mesmerizing installation called The Clouds (2015 – 2018) that covers the largest wall in Lehman Maupin’s new gallery, which this show inaugurates. Rail Managing Editor, Charles Schultz, spoke with Lou via Skype the day after she finished packing and crating up the work in her Los Angeles studio.
Charles Schultz (Rail): So how did you become interested in Luke Howard’s essay on the naming of clouds?
Liza Lou: It started with a fascination and curiosity about clouds. What do clouds mean? How are they formed? Looking at painters like Constable and Turner. And that’s when I found Luke Howard. Here was a guy who looked at clouds, studied them in depth, and found a language for them that was big enough that even poets and artists were inspired. He didn’t name things and then limit them, he named them and opened up a whole discourse.
Rail: It’s remarkable to think that all clouds were just called “clouds” before the 19th century, especially when I think about the role of the sky and its many meanings in classical art. Afterall, it’s a place where gods reside. It’s where heaven is. To look skyward also strikes me as fundamentally aspirational. Howard knew all that, but he gave clouds non-secular, scientific terms, and that seems to have brought the cosmos into the linguistic realm of poets and artists who weren’t so much thinking about deities in the sky.
Lou: What Howard did was to bring heaven down to earth. Poets must have thought him to be a kind of cosmic translator. I’m interested in the ephemeral quality of clouds, the fact that they don’t usually last longer than ten minutes.
Rail: How so?
Lou: They’re shifting and moving all the time. As someone whose practice is very earth-bound, that quality is appealing to me. Everything in my studio is handmade and all about touch, very sensual. Everyone that visits my studio always wants to touch the work. There’s something super physical and tactile about it. The dynamic between the ephemeral quality of clouds and then the earthiness of my practice seemed like rich territory to explore.
Rail: There’s something about the surface of clouds that relates to the way viewers interact with your beaded surfaces. I mean, the surface of a cLoud is really an illusion, right? It’s an accumulation of layers of moisture and light reflecting to various degrees. That strikes me as an apt metaphor for the way your beaded surfaces shimmer and shift depending on how the light is falling upon them and where the viewer is standing.
Lou: Yes, you are right. The glass is constantly shifting, refracting light. In the gallery, there’s natural light shafting down onto the work from the skylight. Occasionally you can look up and see a cloud moving between buildings. And the light changes the work. It can be really beautiful. I found myself going toward beauty but also trying to bring in something tough. A sense of loss, maybe. Because clouds can be violent too, you know?
Rail: Does the act of hammering away at the beads have something to do with that violence?
Lou: The beaded surfaces are so laden with labor and care, it’s not like blank paper or blank canvas. Each piece of cloth is made one bead at a time, sewn by hand—
Rail: And then you engage in, what would you call it? Careful destruction?
Lou: [Laughter] That’s such a lovely way of saying it, but I don’t really think about it as destruction. It’s more about revealing the network of threading, the integrity that’s beneath the surface that you can never really see. Weaving has to be done one step at a time, one bead at a time. So taking a hammer to it is really a gesture of opening this surface up, revealing the hidden network underneath and—ironically—it draws attention to the labor. But yeah, I listened to a fair amount of punk rock while I was smashing. It was incredibly satisfying. As somebody who has spent years making things, it’s very fun to just smash the hell out of it.
Rail: [Laughter] What’s it like to paint on the beads? Is this the first time you’ve painted on beads, by the way?
Lou: It was new for me to put my hand, my visible gesture on top of a wrought surface. In the past, my signature or individual mark was lost in the tsunami of a very large, collective labor. It’s new for me to show my hand, as it were.
Rail: Were there painters you were looking at? You mentioned Turner earlier, and I know The Clouds includes Monet’s Les Nuages in the subtitle.
Lou: This body of work was really thinking about painting, and thinking about beauty. Because again, you start to look at clouds, you start to think about Constable, Turner, you start to look at all great landscape painters…Cezanne and it lead me to late Monet.
Monet is someone who at the end of his life was fighting a battle for beauty. He stayed in his studio at Giverny during World War I, which can be read as both an act of hubris and an act of resistance. Imagine this huge, almost army barrack size space not for hospitals, not for the wounded—just for painting. To me, that is a really strong stance to take for your art. It’s saying art matters; it’s life or death. Then, he refused to leave Giverny. The donkey carts were rolling by his estate as people were evacuating and he said I won’t leave—I’d rather die with my work. That really gave me a lot of inspiration.
Rail: What about his paintings? What part of his cloud paintings inspired you?
Lou: The color, scale, texture, reflection, his interest in serial imagery, repetition—they’re all compelling. But mostly and above all, his sense of color. It is said that he had a special sensitivity to the ultraviolet spectrum due to his cataracts. Little did he know that his greatest setback was gifting him with a spectacular sense of color, and even though what he was striving for and what he was able to achieve were at odds, the work survived and now it’s for us to appreciate and consider.
Rail: Listening to you talk about Monet’s commitment to Giverny during the war, I can’t help but wonder how closely you relate? I mean, Durban is pretty hostile too. In one of the footnotes to Robert Pincus-Witten’s catalog essay "Liza Lou: Why not beads?" he writes that he basically pleaded with you to leave South Africa for your own safety, but you wouldn’t. You stayed and to him it was a powerful display of sisterhood and solidarity.
Lou: Huh, that’s a really interesting thing to bring up. I don’t remember him trying to talk me out of being there! It’s a violent place. But then, so is America. Foreign violence seems crazier. We are used to things here. It reminds me of that quote from Jeanette Winterson when describing her mother, she said, “she was crazy, but she was my crazy.”
There’s this idea in Zen Buddhism that you stay with what is difficult and you allow yourself to feel the fear, or the heartache, or whatever arises, and you stay with it. It requires courage to sit still and not budge. In this sense—thinking about Durban—the greatest thing that I can do is to stay. I don’t have to make a big gesture. I don’t have to do much, I just have to keep going, because there’s a lot of good that happens there. The people that work with me have built their lives around having productive, steady work. So it isn’t like this big do-gooder project. And it isn’t about me polishing my halo—none of that. It’s just about staying. That’s it.
Rail: It’s interesting to hear you talk about suffering not as a negative experience but as just a human experience. When I was preparing for our talk one of the words I kept coming back to was “duration,” which at its root basically means something that lasts. Similar to persistence or to persevere, and it is a close relative of the word “endure,” which makes room for the experience of suffering. One doesn’t talk about having to endure a beautiful walk, one endures something challenging, something difficult.
Lou: The idea of endurance is very large for me because what I do requires a lot of time. And then—by extension—if I want to make anything large, it requires working with others, which means I then ask: how do I make it sustainable, which is another piece of endurance. I want to make an artwork that grows and becomes something that I couldn’t imagine it could become. If I just see people as a means to an end and that end is just making an artwork together, then, by extension that artwork becomes a product, and I refuse that. I want to make work that lives and pulses with the way it was made and with the integrity with which it was made.
Rail: I’m attracted to this notion of beauty that’s hidden, or at least out of view, and how it can be revealed in a way that allows someone to know it exists, but to not actually have access to it. When I think about works of yours where beauty—the labor—is tucked away and out of sight I think of The Roll and The Book of Days.
Lou: Also, there is Gather (one million), which is made up of one million blades of (beaded) grass, but you can only see the tips of them and their outside edges. Come to think of it, there are lots of projects I’ve worked on where a large part of the work is tucked away out of sight. The Book of Days points to labor and the compression our days as its subject matter. There are 365 sheets that are woven out of these teeny tiny silver beads that are really difficult to work with. Not only are they small, but they are irregular sizes. So it’s just this super maddening process of striving for a kind of uniformity that is totally impossible. After many months of making the cloths, when I realized they needed to be stacked one on top of another, and not fully shown, it seemed like this perfect kind of metaphor for the loss inherent in our days. All of that labor, never to be seen. Only the outside, shimmering edges. For me, it speaks about a kind of sorrow—that we never fully know our days and we can never fully know ourselves.
Rail: Sometimes the needs of your team create certain parameters of your work, like how the scale of Continuous Mile was generated by the needs of your studio team and what amount of work was required to sustain their livelihoods. That begs the question, how was the scale of The Clouds determined?
Lou: The Clouds was first commissioned for the Sydney Biennale, and I was given a specific amount of space.
Rail: Well, The Clouds is an impressive artwork and I feel like we could keep talking about it for hours, but let’s give some space to the other work in the show. Can you talk about the video piece that will be shown?
Lou: It’s essentially a video of me drawing, and every circular mark I make is accompanied by a sound—an O sound that I make—which is probably kind of weird but people do weird things, Charlie, you probably know that.
Rail: Yeah, I’m learning. [Laughter]
Lou: When I’m making this circular mark I go, “ooohhhhhh,” and I do that for hours. At one point I started to wonder what would happen if I recorded myself drawing over many days. I ended up in a recording studio in LA. It was probably the first time they had someone in the sound booth with a drawing pad. I’d draw as I made the sounds. Basically, my mark doesn’t happen unless it is accompanied by my sound.
Rail: Does the video loop?
Lou: Yes, it’s a little over six minutes long.
Rail: Does it aim for an endlessness or is there a clear beginning and conclusion?
Lou: It will feel circular but you will know when that loop has ended. Let me play a bit for you. [Sound of her video]
Rail: That’s beautiful and fascinating. Thank you for giving me a listen of what’s to come. I immediately start to think of how the sense of accumulation and repetition that characterizes your beadwork is also evident in the layering process that you’ve created in this sound track.
Lou: I wanted it to be a kind of sound collage where you feel the sense of layering of days.
Rail: There are so many different types of emotions registered with nothing more than a change in intonation. It’s remarkable. Of course, it also brings to mind chanting.
Lou: Yeah, the repetition of the vowel, O can be a revelation or it can be a cry of despair. The soundings are a way to focus the mind, also tracing the shape I am making with vocal resonance seemed primal to me.
Rail: It’s basically a pre-linguistic sound. No matter what language, what era, that sound communicates a feeling. It could register euphoria or confusion, depending on the intonation. I understand that in addition to the video piece and The Clouds, there are a series of paintings?
Lou: Yes, that’s right.
Rail: How do the paintings differ from The Clouds?
Lou: They differ in layering. It’s taking the language of The Clouds, which is to say using a grid pattern, and painting the individual cloths, and then seeing what I can do with this discovery. It led me to thinking about air, transparency, disintegration. My basic mantra was to release the material, not to obey it.
Rail: Are these individual pieces hanging?
Lou: They’re mounted on canvas stretchers. They’re woven, then they’re painted, then I cover the painting with a layer of beads that’s been partially smashed. So you see the painting underneath, which makes a third tone, a kind of chiaroscuro. Painting on the surface of the beads made me ask, “what is it that a beaded surface offers that, say, canvas or board as a surface material cannot offer?” And this led me to smashing off the beads, and to exploring other things, like staining the threads inside the woven work.
Rail: The way the components hang loose reminds me of the how Robert Morris used to hang his felt pieces on the wall, so that the bend of the felt—what gravity did to it—was part of the aesthetics of the piece. Is Robert Morris ever on your mind?
Lou: Robert Morris’s work was never actively on my mind, but I do love the early felt works. When I’m working, I’m responding to what is at hand, to my decades-long year relationship with my chosen material and to an intense working practice. At one point when working, I started to write down what I was thinking about as I made decisions, because I was aware that I was having a very intense internal dialogue for hours, that if I spoke aLoud, would sound like a crazy person. Things like, “Peach over the red or leave it as a dark anomaly?” and, “Smash the thick one.”
Rail: The surface becomes so tangible in these pieces. The dividing line between the painted surface and the surface as an object itself seems to run right up the line between painting and sculpture.
Lou: I was hoping for that kind of dissolution. It feels like there is still more to discover. It’s been an intense process. A very, very intense period of time.