The beadworkers hail from local townships, where conditions have hardly improved since the end of apartheid in 1994. Most have never eaten in a restaurant, let alone visited an art museum, and initially, when Lou showed them photographs of her sculptures and installations, they were underwhelmed. Lou says that when they first saw the chain-link fence that they would be covering in tiny silver beads, for one of her “Security Fence” pieces (it is now owned by Pinault-Printemps-Redoute honcho and megacollector François Pinault), they said, “What is this ugly thing we’re doing?”
Indeed, it’s hard for anyone to appreciate the impact of Lou’s creations by looking at photographs of them. Her second large-scale piece, after Kitchen, was Back Yard (1999), a full-size suburban lawn composed of 250,000 individually beaded blades of grass. Thematically, too, the subtleties of the piece aren’t apparent on the page. While her zanily colorful early work dealt with feminism and mass culture, later pieces—such as Cell (2006), an unsettlingly luminous re-creation of a death-row holding pen—are darker explorations of violence and confinement. Lou often seems intent on glorifying something humble or beautifying something awful.
“Liza’s work is an imitation of life, where nothing is real,” says her Paris gallerist, Thaddaeus Ropac. “At the same time, it’s so present that it can be very frightening.” According to art historian and critic Robert Pincus-Witten, it offers a unique synthesis of issues deriving from conceptualism, Pop art and feminism. “There’s that ambiguity between the extremely luxurious and the politically terrifying,” he says.
You don’t have to dig very deeply into Lou’s personal history to find the wellsprings for her works’ conflicting themes. Her parents lived determinedly bohemian lives in Manhattan until 1965, when they attended a revival meeting and became born-again Christians. After burning all of their books and artworks, including Roy Lichtenstein paintings that were gifts from the artist, they moved to Minnesota, where they worked for various fundamentalist churches. Lou and her sister grew up watching exorcisms and speaking in tongues.
At a certain point in her teens, Lou began to question some of the tales she’d been told: Did King David really speak to her mother in the hospital after Lou was born, to explain that the baby was a blessing unto this world? (Today, although not exactly an atheist, Lou says she isn’t a believer, either: “Certain things have to line up for me in terms of logic.”) In 1989 she took a summer trip to Europe, and in the cathedrals of Florence and Venice, she experienced revelations, though they had less to do with Jesus than with mosaics and Byzantine domes. “As an American kid who grew up in the suburbs—postmodern churches with plastic chairs and all that crap—it was totally transforming to be in a place that took hundreds of years to make,” Lou says. “That blew me away.” Back in California, where she was attending the San Francisco Art Institute, she had another epiphany when she walked into a bead store and discovered a material that was far more interesting to her than paint.