When Lou began incorporating beads into her abstract paintings, her teachers and classmates were mortified. “I was really, really hated for what I was doing. I was this strange little person, making things,” Lou recalls. “People would actually say, ‘I’m sorry, but that is not allowed.’ But when I saw how much this material upset people, it was so obvious that it was a good thing.”
Eventually Lou quit school, got a studio in Los Angeles and became determined to transform an ordinary kitchen—the ultimate symbol of domestic drudgery—into something as dazzling as Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice. To earn a living, Lou worked as a waitress and sold prom dresses. She also began selling off completed pieces of Kitchen as she was trying to finish it. “It wasn’t the smartest thing,” Lou acknowledges. “I would sell these cups and saucers for $200. And it would take me four weeks to make them. But I needed the money. And I thought, Look, somebody wants to buy my work!” Her breakthrough museum show came in 1996, after Marcia Tucker, then director of the New Museum in New York, noticed a photo of Kitchen on a postcard that Lou had mailed to her. Prominent West Coast collectors Eileen and Peter Norton ended up buying the piece, which allowed Lou to get going on Back Yard.
In the decade since, even as her work has grown more overtly political, Lou has stuck with beads. The exception was a riveting performance piece, Born Again, in which she acted out moments from a fire-and-brimstone childhood. At one point she becomes a six-year-old whose father abuses her while she lies, blindfolded, on a table in the basement. Lou began working on the piece in 2001 and performed it at Les Deux Cafés in L.A. and later at Deitch Projects in New York. (A video version was included in her shows at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in Paris and White Cube in London.) Her friend Michele Lamy, former owner of Les Deux Cafés, recalls that the piece was a surprise to many in Lou’s circle. “I always felt there was this huge sense of chagrin in her work,” says Lamy. “We didn’t know where it was coming from. Now we know, a little bit.”
Lou, in our interview, doesn’t say too much about her father, whom she stopped talking to years ago. (Her surname, which she changed, is based on a childhood nickname.) When asked if her father is still alive, she nods and says, “Unfortunately.” Then she laughs and shoots a look at the tape recorder, but she lets the comment stand. “He is not a good person,” she says. (She remains close with her divorced mother.)