During the five years that Liza Lou spent making her first major artwork—a life-size replica of a suburban kitchen, in which she hand-glued millions of glittering glass beads onto every surface, from the appliances to the dirty dishes in the sink—she got used to being dismissed, and at times despised, by people in the art world. Many wrote her off as a kooky craftsperson or a second-rate jeweler. “Obsessive” was one recurring label that particularly irked her, and still does. True, Lou became antisocial and undernourished while finishing Kitchen (1995) and developed acute tendinitis in her hands (she applied each bead individually, using tweezers), but she thinks it’s all too easy to attribute her efforts to some bizarre compulsion.
“It’s summing up someone’s lifework as a mental oddity,” says Lou, 39, during lunch in Durban, South Africa, where she’s preparing for a September gallery show at L&M Arts in New York. With a sunny smile, she adds, “What’s far more frightening for people is to consider the possibility that I’m completely aware of what I’m doing.”
That possibility looks increasingly likely. Lou, who in 2002 won a $500,000 “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation, hasn’t yet entirely shed the nutty reputation, but her sculptures, installations and beaded tableaux are now highly prized by the world’s top curators and collectors. By putting a pretty, sparkly material to use in challenging ways, Lou makes works that mesmerize young children as well as art critics; reactions generally start with “Oh, my God” and get more complex from there.
Certainly Lou’s working process is unique among contemporary artists, judging by a recent visit to her studio in Durban, where she’s been based, on and off, for the past three years. At 8:30 a.m., in one of the two rooms Lou rents in a downtown complex, about 25 Zulu women and men, clad in print dresses or jeans and T-shirts, are gathered in a large circle, dancing and singing. Among them is an attractive and pixieish blond, Lou, who looks a bit like Sharon Stone’s kid sister. Lou claps along as each person takes turns stepping into the center of the circle, kicking and stomping one leg. Amid loud cheers, Lou gleefully does her own dance, before the session ends and everyone goes off to their seats around the studio, where the singing will continue in spurts as they spend the day gluing beads onto things, one by one.
Durban, the largest city in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, is a gritty tropical port with a few gorgeous beaches, lots of run-down buildings encircled by barbed wire and, in the center of town, clusters of homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks. It’s also a place where the traditional craft of beadwork still thrives. Lou first came here with the idea of attempting some politically responsible outsourcing: Her plan was to recruit unemployed artisans to help her with beadwork, pay them good wages and return to California, where she lives in Topanga Canyon with her husband, graphic designer Mick Haggerty. “But then the singing happened,” Lou says, recalling the rounds of song that broke out as the team worked. Before long they were starting each day with an hour of song and dance, and Lou found herself repeatedly extending her stays. (Haggerty came down to join her.)