Originally published on: October 30, 2008
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In the decade since her breakout success in 1996, Liza Lou has won a $500,000 genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation, kept a studio in Durban, South Africa, and continuously mesmerized the world’s critics and collectors. She works with millions of tiny glass beads, taking the traditionally craft-oriented medium and elevating it to astonishing artistic heights.
Liza Lou is currently showing work at L&M Arts in New York City, where two stories of her complex and captivating sculptures and installations can be viewed. The artist works with accumulations of tiny beads, meticulously applied with the help of studio assistants. The works exhibited at L&M Arts reference themes of injustice, captivity, and religion.
Entering the gallery, one encounters Continuous Mile, 2007-2008, a large circular sculpture composed of cotton and white beads, resembling densely coiled and intertwined rope. The beads send light dancing into the eyes of the viewer, creating a tension between beauty and bondage. The rear room houses the dramatic Security Fence, 2005-2007, an imposing and elegant cage structure composed of steel and glass beads. The work stands at over 10 feet tall, crowned with glistening concertina wire and theatrically placed in a room by itself and situated at an angle. The threatening connotations of confinement are tempered by the jewel-like quality of the surface. The silver beads reflect light and visually entrance the viewer despite this undercurrent of violence.
As you ascend to the second floor via a grand winding staircase, you are able to circle Tower, a latticed steel structure composed of five cages stacked on top of one another and covered with white beads. Tower extends over thirty feet, into the third story of the gallery, which is roped off, adding a forbidden quality to the work. On the walls of the front and rear rooms of the second floor, Liza Lou presents her new series, Reliefs. These are vertically oriented panels that represent Muslim prayer rugs and mix strict geometrical patterning with abstraction, such as in Offensive/Defensive, 2008. They are larger than human scale and are executed with an impressive precision. The panels have a topographic surface, carefully and meticulously constructed to achieve stunning variations in depth and color.
Self-Portrait (Face Down), 2006 is a cast resin pillow covered in glass beads with the impression of the artist’s face, an uneasy suggestion of suffocation. This work of art captures the qualities that are pervasive throughout the exhibition, the tension between the threat of imprisonment and the astonishing beauty of the works themselves. The architecture of the gallery itself provides an interesting juxtaposition to the glistening contemporary works of Lou. The winding staircase, the crown moldings in every room, and the arched windows provide a formal environment for her sparkling works.
Liza Lou’s choice of medium, her incredible compulsion to create, and the dedication to her process are truly amazing. While she often receives the label “obsessive,” Lou shrugs this off by stating, “What’s far more frightening for people is to consider the possibility that I’m completely aware of what I’m doing.” Liza Lou transforms the bleak apparti of bondage and imprisonment into astonishing works of art, evoking, at once, the tragedy and beauty of life.