'There is lifeblood in process, in labour – the juice, the sweat and tears – all of it is in the making.'
Liza Lou’s work is characterised by a tension between its seductive, even magical, materiality and the intensive labour involved in its creation, which manifests as process as well as subject matter. From the pioneering installations made of glass beads with which she came to prominence in the 1990s, to the more pared-back, minimalist approach she adopts in her recent paintings, the artist invites viewers to explore the potential of perception, both as an experience of visual wonder, and on the level of critical analysis. All the while, she highlights provoking questions regarding value, the valorisation of labour, and its links to gender.
Her proximity to the handmade has always guided Lou’s way of working, whether alone, or in a variety of socially engaged environments, including the collective she founded and operated from 2005-2020 in Durban, South Africa. The artist explains, ‘I became very interested in the collective solidarity of women, and in the solidarity present in every stitch. Our work together became the record of a process. It’s work about work.’ The seriality and rigour of Minimalism are present in these works, particularly in the monochrome glass bead-woven canvases, whose formalism is tempered by the haptic quality of the oil marks left on the beads by the human hand. In time, this technique shifted as the artist began to hammer away the woven surfaces of the glass beads in order to reveal the network of threads hidden inside. The beauty and humanity of Lou’s works lie in their subtle variations, which become reliquaries of the time and labour involved in their creation.
Liza Lou is best known for her large-scale sculptures and environments created from countless glass beads that are painstakingly woven together to create a unified whole. Her work is characterised by a tension between their seductive, even magical, materiality and the intensive labour involved in their creation, which manifests as both process and subject. As Lou describes, 'Beads have a lot of connotations before you even make anything with them – around beauty, preciousness, and even labour. They're made with a lot of care; they have their own value.' She blurs the boundaries between fine art and craft, while inviting viewers to experience her works at both the level of visual wonder and critical analysis, highlighting questions regarding the valorisation of labour and its links to gender and the artist's own identity.
Her proximity to craftwork has led Lou to work in a variety of socially engaged environments, including beadwork collectives in Durban, South Africa and Mumbai, India, as well as community groups in Los Angeles and a women's prison in Belém, Brazil. The artist explains: 'I became very interested in the idea of a collective labour, of solidarity with women and solidarity in every stitch […] I want our work together to be a record of process. It's work about work.' The seriality and rigour of Minimalism are present in these works, particularly in her recent monochrome beaded canvases, but their formalism is complicated by the handmade aesthetic. The beauty and humanity of her works lie in their small flaws and subtle variations, which become reliquaries of the time and labour involved in their creation.
Born in New York in 1969, Lou lives and works in Los Angeles. She first came to prominence in 1996, when her room-sized beaded sculpture Kitchen was shown at the New Museum in New York. This groundbreaking work, now in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum, represented 5 years of solitary labour and established the principles of materiality and social consciousness that would come to define her practice. In 2005, she established a studio in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, where she collaborates with Zulu women who are skilled in the craft of traditional beadwork. More recently, she founded the Apartogether community art project, as a way of fostering connection and creativity during the Covid-19 pandemic. Lou's work has been featured in solo exhibitions at institutions including the Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona (1998); Bass Museum of Art, Miami and Aspen Art Museum (1998); Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf (2002); Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Oslo (2002); Savannah College of Art and Design, Georgia (2011); Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (2013); and the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, New York (2015). She is the recipient of a 2013 Anonymous was a Woman Award and is also a MacArthur Fellow (2002).