Liza Lou has carved out a career working solely with glass beads. As Lou's new series goes on show in Seoul and Lehmann Maupin prepares to exhibit a work at West Bund Art & Design fair in Shanghai, she explains how her focus is shifting from the body to the mind

Liza Lou worked for more than a decade in a studio in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, that buzzed with activity. The American artist and her team of artisans sat elbow-to-elbow every day weaving thousands of glass beads into the shimmering paintings, tapestries, sculptures and installations that Lou has been making for more than 25 years. While they worked, they’d talk. They’d hum. They’d eat. They’d laugh. Occasionally, they’d break into gospel songs, their rapture reverberating around the room as they wove bead after bead, thread after thread, day after day.

So when Lou moved alone to work in a studio in Los Angeles four years ago, she was struck by the silence.

“Moving home was really difficult at first,” she says. “The studio in South Africa is special. It’s a shared endeavour and we all have this mutual love for this process, and love for each other. All of us have our own families, but then there’s the family life in the studio. You spend hours and hours and hours with people chatting around a table, sharing your life.

"But I was faced with this decision because at a certain point you’re giving up your citizenship and you have to ask real questions about what you’re doing with the rest of your life. I have a daughter; I have a husband. There was a time when I couldn’t imagine leaving, but sometimes when you’re faced with a big choice you can’t actually think it all through; sometimes you just have to do and then let it take care of itself. The answers are in the doing—that became my epiphany.”

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Above Liza Lou. (Photo: Zihui Song. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin)

Lou may well have learned that from her labour-intensive art, the meaning of which can be found in the way it’s made. For her first major work, which was completed in 1996, Lou created a life-size replica of a kitchen using millions of glass beads. Tony The Tiger smiles out from a beaded purple cereal box. Strings of blue beads pour from beaded taps, splashing into a bubbling beaded sink filled with beaded plates, bowls and teacups.

Lou sees the gleaming installation as a monument to unsung labour, such as cooking, cleaning and sewing. Like these jobs, the making of Kitchen was monotonous and often took place in snatched moments, when Lou wasn’t working as a waitress or shop assistant. “I thought Kitchen would take me three months and it took five years,” recalls Lou. “The actual doing of it was incredibly difficult, tedious and frustrating. But when I came to realise that the work itself was a metaphor, that it was about process and not completion, then I came to a deep sense of peace.”

Kitchen caught the eye of Marcia Tucker, the late founder of New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art, who exhibited the sculpture—and pushed Lou into the public eye. For the next three years, Lou made Backyard, a 528-square-foot installation of a garden featuring 250,000 blades of grass, each a snip of wire strung with green beads.

The threading process was so time-consuming that it would’ve taken Lou more than 40 years to finish the installation alone, so members of the public volunteered to help. Watching them, Lou became fascinated by how everyone produced such different work, even though they were all using the same materials and following the same instructions. Some blades of grass were poker straight, others were crooked; the oil from some people’s hands left the beads shiny and bright, while other beads came back dull.

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Above Liza Lou, Clear After Rain (2019). (Photo: Josh White. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin)

This interest in individual quirks became an obsession when Lou established her studio in South Africa in 2005 and observed how each artisan unwittingly left their own mark on everything they produced. Inspired, Lou left her large, figurative installations behind and asked the women to each produce small beaded tapestries made solely of white beads. Some of the artisans worked from home so they could care for their children; their glistening strips came back with tiny handprints and drops of cooking oil.

But even those who wove their cloths in Lou’s studio returned clearly unique works, each a reflection of the person who made it. “I wanted to keep my studio going because the women that I work with are very, very dear to me,” says Lou.“I’ve been commissioning these woven cloths that are made out of white beads from them, then they’re sent to me in my studio here in LA." 

These abstract, minimalist tapestries form the base of Lou’s latest series, which was unveiled last month at an exhibition that spanned both Lehmann Maupin's gallery in Seoul and the city's Songwon Art Center. In November, one of these new works—Clear After Rain (2019), pictured above—is being shown at Lehmann Maupin's booth at the West Bund Art & Design fair, which runs from October 7 to 10 in Shanghai. 


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Above Liza Lou, Psalm 51 (2019). (Photo: Josh White. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin)

Once these cloths reach Lou in LA, she sets to work. Lou sometimes paints over the beads, using both light washes and thick waves of colour, but also cuts the cloths apart, sews over them and sometimes takes a hammer to the glass, revealing the threaded grid beneath. “Each cloth becomes kind of like a Pandora’s box to me, something to be explored or discovered,” says Lou.  

“Working alone has yielded a whole new body of work because I’m entirely by myself. And that has led to this entire way of thinking about my own marks. My work has always been handmade but it was a collective of the hand, whereas now you very much see authorship in my work. It’s almost harking back to early work I made 25 years ago, like Kitchen, where you very much see my hand and no one else’s.”

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Above Liza Lou, The River and the Raft, installation view in Seoul | Lehmann Maupin & Songwon Art Center, September 26 – November 9, 2019. (Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin)

If many of her previous works were about the body—the marks it leaves behind and the physicality of labour—this series is about the mind. “The title of the series is The River and the Raft. It really explores the inner landscape through abstraction,” explains Lou. “The river in the title refers to the unconscious mind and the raft can be seen as consciousness. I thought a lot about the inner landscape and tried to make work that uses the processes of the work itself in order to peel away layers and get to something that feels essential.”

These are big ideas and they’re important to Lou, but so is the fact that her art is unabashedly beautiful. “When I first started working, I remember thinking really strongly, almost making a vow, that I will not make anything ugly,” recalls Lou. “There’s already so much ugliness. And of course ugliness and beauty can be argued—what is beautiful? There’s plenty of architectural examples of true monstrosity but someone actually thought they were a good idea.

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Above Liza Lou, Nightsong (2019). (Photo: Josh White. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin)

“To me, it feels essential that artists do concern themselves with making work that argues for beauty, that gives a sense of pleasure or the sublime, because for me that’s what makes life worth living. Especially today, when we’re doing so much harm to our planet, to our environment, on an unprecedented scale. To make a contribution that gives people something of beauty—I can’t think of anything more meaningful and more conceptually worthwhile than that.”

Beauty, craftsmanship, labour and ideas of “women’s work” are fundamental to Lou’s art, but ultimately it all comes back to “the blessing of the hand and the marathon of making.” The “blessings” of Lou’s hand are unmissable in this new series, which shows off her own brushstrokes and how she’s personally woven, cracked and shattered her sparkling, glittering beads. But more than that, the series hints at spiritual ideas about how hands shape far more than physical objects—they also forge our relationships. “I’m working alone in LA, but I’m making gestures on top of the work of the women who I work with in South Africa,” says Lou. “In a sense, it’s like I’m holding hands across the world with the women I work with.”

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