Tinkering with Beads: Liza Lou’s Autobiographical Labours of Love

Liza Lou, Sunday Morning, 2019, oil on paint on woven glass beads and thread on canvas, 180.3 x 320 x 5.1 cm.
Installation view of Liza Lou “The River and the Raft” at Songwon Art Center, Seoul, 2019.
Liza Lou, Comfort Animal, 2019, oil paint on woven glass beads and thread on canvas, 145.1 x 108.9 x 5.1 cm.
Liza Lou, Psalm 51, 2019, oil paint on woven glass beads and thread on canvas, 143.2 x 142.2 x 5.1 cm.
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CoBo Social Chinese Abstraction Series

In an artistic practice that spans drawing, painting and—dare I say—labour intensive beading, Los Angeles-based Liza Lou collapses inherent assumptions weighing down craft and gives the old canonistic definition of painting new potential. Her latest exhibition with Lehmann Maupin casts an autobiographical light on her 30-odd years working with glass beads.

 

TEXT: Denise Tsui
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin

 

Liza Lou, Sunday Morning, 2019, oil on paint on woven glass beads and thread on canvas, 180.3 x 320 x 5.1 cm.

 

“How then shall we live?” she asks. “Implicit in the art-making act is hope,” Liza Lou explains, referencing the Titanic. “It’s tragic, but it’s beautiful. And that’s the role of the artist. The artist is singing, leading the songs as the ship goes down. And so, that’s what I feel like I’m going to do.” For the better part of three decades, Lou has dedicated herself to exploring the potential of a rather unusual medium of choice: the minuscule glass bead. Inherently associated with the territory of craft, the glass bead is a tiny nugget loaded with heavy meaning; probing difficult questions on the feminist discourse and the validity of applied artistic values.

Taking this understated medium, Lou creates sculptures and sculptural paintings that beg for close inspection. Her works lend us to question our own beliefs on the classifications of art and the perceived value of manual labour. For years, people have debated the boundaries separating craft and fine art, the former traditionally observed as made for use while the latter purely for contemplation. That fine art was deemed as holding higher value is a much-contested view, but to some degree, still remains a prevailing one. Through her works, where beads are painstakingly weaved by hand to create her ‘canvas,’ such cultural labelling seeks to be dissolved.

Exhibiting in Seoul for the first time, Lou’s quietly beautiful paintings evoke a sense of serenity and sanctuary inside the gallery spaces. Hosted across two locations, namely Songwon Art Centre and Lehmann Maupin’s Seoul gallery, “The River and the Raft” presents nine new works and a mesmerizing video revealing Lou’s drawing practice. The video, which is exhibited at Songwon and was my first stop, appears profoundly different to the other works on view, whether from visual aesthetic to the creative act taking place. Yet, the audio—gentle humming of the artist as she draws—is captivating, and imbued a poetic and feminine air, which trickled throughout the exhibition.

 

Installation view of Liza Lou “The River and the Raft” at Songwon Art Center, Seoul, 2019.

 

Lou’s relationship with beads began in art school. She recalls being a young painter in the early 1990s, walking into a bead shop one day and simply being taken by the beads that stood before her. Receiving discouragement from her professor it wasn’t long before Lou decidedly dropped out of school to chase the potential of her newfound material. The work that arguably defined the beginning of her career was Kitchen (1991-96); a life-size re-enactment of a kitchen, painstakingly covered with beads, even down to the water coming out of a pipe, dirty plates and a cereal box. It was truly a labour of love, and Lou pursued it alone. Reflecting on Kitchen, Lou sought to find others who related to the intimacy of beadwork, and discovered the Zulu women in Durban, South Africa. “You’re always responding, even if you’re not doing it intentionally. Its kind of going through the body, through the heart, the brain, and it’s all filtering through the hand,” explains Lou. Connecting with the medium is at the core of her practice. And she doesn’t do it alone. For the past 15 or so years, Lou has worked closely with the Zulu women. “They have no work, unemployment rate is like 70% in the townships, and yet they have a huge amount of skill and talent,” she tells me. “Only that the skills don’t translate in the real world. It’s a skill that doesn’t actually put food on the table for them.”

A short visit turned into a permanent residency and it was only in 2015 that she returned to the U.S. with her husband and daughter. “It was time to go home. When I started the project, I was really worried about sustainability for the women I work with, but I hadn’t really thought about sustainability for myself.” Now, with studios across both Durban and Los Angeles, Lou continues to commission the women to help her in creating beaded ‘canvas,’ but now it is alone in her LA studio that the fruits of their labour become the paintings we see on the walls. Unlike earlier works, in some regards, these new pieces have shed the weight of their past as an outcome of a social practice or a feminist argument. It is lighter, and more personal; perhaps an extension of her thoughts and journey readjusting to life away from Durban. The title of the exhibition, references a Buddhist parable, which the official gallery statement describes as: “… a lesson in letting go, about valuing the investment and time we committed to past pursuits, while accepting their loss so we are able to move forward unencumbered.” Although Lou tells me this is largely coincidental and not a deliberate parallel she was trying to draw, it seems inexplicably linked when one views these works in context with her earlier shows.

 

Liza Lou, Comfort Animal, 2019, oil paint on woven glass beads and thread on canvas, 145.1 x 108.9 x 5.1 cm.

 

Lou’s intricate works demand close inspection and carry traces reminiscent of Agnes Martin’s minimalist abstraction and aesthetics of Pointillism. In the context of Seoul, one may even be reminded of the visual stylistics of Dansaekwha. From afar they appear deceivingly plain and subdued. The allure of the beads and the fragility of its layers resist photography. About two years ago, Lou introduced a new process into her practice; taking a hammer to her canvas. “It was born out of knowing the integrity that goes into making each stitch, there’s really no way to cheat that, you have to take each step,” she tells me. “When something is repetitive, we stop seeing it, stop appreciating it in a way. So taking it away is a way of honouring it.” With the hammer, Lou began to smash away at parts of her paintings, the sound of broken beads filling the quiet air of her studio. For Lou, it became a method of mark making in an act where creation becomes destruction but insofar that the act of hammering at the beads generated a new chapter of potential for her works. For the first time, Lou herself saw the layers that make up her bead paintings; to her surprise, the streaks left by the beads stained the threads, and the threads remained, like a ghost of what once was. In this exhibition, Comfort Animal (2019), Psalm 51  (2019) and Nightsong (2019) are all the outcomes of this method, each holding unique aesthetic qualities. While Comfort Animal appears like torn shreds, with patches of beads where it appears oil paint was smeared or smudged, Nightsong and Psalm 51 contain the delicate, lacy webs of the threads after the beads have fallen away, exposing the layers beneath.

 

Liza Lou, Psalm 51, 2019, oil paint on woven glass beads and thread on canvas, 143.2 x 142.2 x 5.1 cm.

 

Sunday Morning (2019) adds further depth through thick dabs of paint applied directly atop the broken surface where Lou’s hammer once was. Smaller square panels lined in a 9×6 grid make up the larger rectangular composition, measuring over three metres in width. A lonesome extra square in the bottom row that dangles outside of the frame creates a focal point. The irregularity of several panels jutes out to the eye but grants the work some compositional breathing space. Almost in opposition, Clear After Rain (2019) and Afternoons (2019) are comprised of these same sheets of beaded ‘canvas,’ only they remain intact and minimal, with faint colour given by the threads that they are weaved with.

Labour intensive and made with love, Lou’s creations charter the autobiographical—but perhaps this is only most evident after the works sit with you for some time. The small catalogue produced on the occasion of this exhibition perhaps sheds the most light on this aspect. The poem that inspired Lou, or was on her mind during the making of each work, is reprinted next to each artwork. When read side by side with the product of her labour, one can imagine the artist, alone in the studio with her process, showing each sheet love, just as the Zulu women showed each bead due love in the weaving process. So how then shall we live? If “River and the Raft” can give us the answer, then it would surely be with love, beauty and tenderness.

 

Liza Lou: The River and the Raft
26 September – 9 November 2019
Lehmann Maupin and Songwon Art Center, Seoul

 

About the artist
Liza Lou (b. 1969, New York; lives and works in Los Angeles) has had solo exhibitions organized in museums around the world, including Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art, Cape Town, South Africa (2017); Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, NY (2015); and Wichita Museum of Art, Wichita, KS (2015), among others. Select group exhibitions have included the National Gallery of South Africa, Cape Town (2017); Israel Museum, Jerusalem (2017); FOR-SITE Foundation, San Francisco, CA (2016); Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona, Spain (2014); Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA (2010); New Museum, New York (2010); and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2010). Lou’s work is in numerous international public and private collections, including Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA; DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art, Athens, Greece; François Pinault Foundation, Palazzo Grassi, Venice, Italy; and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, among others. She is the recipient of the 2013 Anonymous Was A Woman Award and the 2002 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.

 

 


 

Denise Tsui is currently the Editor for CoBo Social. A Hong Kong-born Aussie with an addiction to coffee, her research interests are primarily in the study of exhibition models and curatorial practices and art from the Southeast Asia Region. Previously she was an editor for ArtAsiaPacific and curator for a private collection of Australian and New Zealand art. A condensed version of her postgraduate curatorial thesis on contemporary Indonesian art was published in the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies in 2015.

 
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