Friday, December 2, 2011

Review of "Liza Lou: Let the Light In" at the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, GA

Liza Lou: Let the Light In
SCAD Museum of Art
October 29, 2011- January, 22, 2012

Liza Lou’s Let the Light In:  Mass Multiplicity within Post-Minimalistic Art

Another artist conceptualizing the ready-made, one might think, approaching the coiled rope sculpture by Liza Lou at the SCAD Museum of Art exhibition Let the Light In.  However, almost immediately after that thought is formed, it becomes evident that this is no ordinary rope, if it is actually a rope at all.  Upon further inspection, thousands, no millions, of tiny white, glass beads are delineated by the eye and the labor executed to make this piece incites a feeling of awe. 

 Liza Lou. Continuous Mile (white), 2006–08. Glass beads, cotton .75” x .75” x 63,360”.
Lou’s Continuous Mile (white) of 2006-08 is only one of some two-dozen works that are coated in endless, light-reflecting beads and are to be exhibited at SCAD Museum of Art from October 29th, 2011-January 22nd, 2012.  Liza Lou, (b. 1969), an American artist based in both L.A. and South Africa, creates sculptures and reliefs that reference quotidian objects such as book pages, cotton cloth and fencing that when layered or made into multiples and then cloaked in brilliant glass beads evoke themes of containment, labor and repetition.[1]  The themes used by Lou allude to Pop Art and Neo-Expressionism but are grounded in Minimalist ideology. 
 Artist, Liza Lou in her Durban studio.
The subtly stunning works echo the radical explorations of Eva Hesse and her post-minimal, process-driven peers of the late '60s. They nod to seriality but fully embrace deviation, striking a sharp balance between geometric clarity and human-driven disorder.[2]
Referred to as the “queen of beads,” “obsessive,” and a “second-hand jeweler,”  doubts about Lou’s process and craft-like works were laid to rest when the artist was awarded the genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 2002 after completing her nationally recognized sculptures.[3]  The pieces in the SCAD Museum of Art exhibition come after Lou’s major works “Kitchen” of 1994 and the follow-up “Backyard” of 1999; the first of which she spent five years covering every aspect of a normal kitchen with her medium of choice: Czech glass beads. 
Liza Lou, Kitchen, 1991-94. Beads pasted on papier maché and wood, 12’ x 14’ x 9’.
 Liza Lou, Backyard, 1995-99. Mixed media beaded sculpture, base 22’ x 24’.
Although she remains committed to her medium in the works collected for Let the Light In, Lou’s process and themes have changed in these later sculptures and reliefs.  Her earlier works were completed by her own hand, carefully arranging and gluing millions of beads with a pair of tweezers; a process which left her suffering from tendonitis.  For these works completed between 2006 and 2008 Lou’s Durban studio provided a much less solitary and faster-producing atmosphere than her mid-nineties L.A. apartment, and she was aided by a group of Zulu assistants, tweezers in hand, whose families have worked with beads for generations. While Lou does not borrow from the tradition of African beadwork, this new body of work reflects her travels, meditating upon process, the impossibility of perfection, and what Lou terms “the culpability of craft.”[4]  Whereas her earlier works evoke a sense of glittering psychedelia, were extreme in nearly every way as optical extravaganzas born of wry humor, social intelligence and an inordinate application of manual labor, these new pieces contain more serious messages relating to geopolitical tensions of the current world and ideas of confinement and protection. 
Let the Light In not only showcases one Continuous Mile, but two; one white and one black, carefully positioned on opposite sides of the room, lending a construction-site identity to the tall-ceiling room.  However, when the bright track lighting catches one of the beads coating the ropes, the space is suddenly transformed into a sparkling wonderland, a brainchild of Willie Wonka himself.  Just as suddenly, the social concerns manifesting within the artist’s works become readily apparent and the irony behind these bedazzled objects rings clear.   Continuous Mile, a coiled and stacked rope measuring a mile in length, is woven entirely out of glossy black, or bone-white beads and is exquisitely hand-wrought. 

 Liza Lou. Continuous Mile (black), 2006–08 (detail). Glass beads, cotton. .75” x .75” x 63,360”.
These sculptures are symbolic references to confinement and exclusion and were relevant to the environment in which the artist was working at the time.  Lou says that she “was initially responding to the images of torture and abuse happening in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. But as an American living and working in South Africa with all of the associations with danger, race issues and post-apartheid…[she] felt like [she] was working on a project in exactly the right place and time.”[5] 

 Liza Lou. Barricade, 2008. 24 karat gold-plated beads and steel88” x 108” x 3”.
Nearby the rope coils stands Barricade (2007-08), a gate-like structure that Lou has encased in 24-karat-gold beads, but provides neither protection nor safety.  With its wide bars and imposing seven-foot height, Barricade acts as a confining structure, although its protection capabilities are hindered by its lack of a solid support base.  Other shiny works like Book of Days (2007-08) and Roll (2007-08), a glass bead coated 365 page book and a roll of cotton cloth respectively, speak to the labor-intensive and repetitious techniques of the artistic process by using unexpected and alluring surfaces to invite viewer investigation. 

                                                                  Liza Lou. Book of Days, Paper and glass beads.
 Also exuding ideas of labor and repetition is Gather (one million), a monumental, shimmering sculpture 150-square feet in size.  This golden field made from nine million beads in varying shades of gold which were threaded onto cut wire to make one million blades of grass. Both the positioning and the strings of elongated beads connote spiky coral reefs or freshly cut golden wheat stalks. 
Liza Lou. Gather (one million). Glass beads and hemp twine, 12’ x 12’.
According to the catalogue of L & M, a Los Angeles gallery which exhibited Lou’s works in Spring 2011:
[Gather’s] painterly freedom evokes the seasonal regeneration of landscape and the abundance of harvest, but a closer examination reveals a more minimalist methodology. Lou systematically counted, weighed, blended and divided the blades into equal wheat-like sheaves. She then tied each bundle with hemp twine, labeled and numbered each one and then following a geometric grid, simply stood them upon the floor.[6] 
The exhaustive nature of this process is only observable to those viewers who bend down to the floor to attain an eye-level vision of the sculpture.  Perhaps the artist is acknowledging that hard work is not always rewarded despite the efforts of a laborer.
Across the room and hanging behind the two Continuous Mile sculptures are unique panels belonging to Lou’s series of reliefs.  Each is created with glass beads standing on their ends and recall prayer rugs of the Caucasus region, groupings of microscopic organisms, topographical maps, or ruinous Lego cities.  Offensive/Defensive (2008) is a collection of vibrantly colored patterns, evenly distributed except for the overlaying black design which appears to creep across the surface like a rapidly spreading stain or eager bacteria.  Find, Fix, Finish (2007-08) creates peaks and valleys of careful geometric shapes with thousands of ebony colored beads of varying lengths, positioned on their ends.  The mesmeric patterning of shapes in these reliefs recall elaborate Eastern detailing and comment on the spiritual and political tensions of the present day. 
Liza Lou. Offensive/Defensive, 2008 (detail). Glass beads on aluminum panel, 72 1/16” x 36” x 1 3/8”.
This body of new works departs from Lou’s early hysterical overflow and is more modernist while using a minimalist approach.  The geometry and repetition in her recent works can be categorized as minimalist and in accordance with Robert Morris’ definitions of this methodology.  In “Notes on Sculpture 1-3,” of 1966, Morris, an influential artist and theorist, attempted to define a conceptual framework and formal elements for himself and one that would embrace the practices of his contemporaries. These essays paid great attention to the idea of the gestalt - "parts... bound together in such a way that they create a maximum resistance to perceptual separation."[7]
Like Morris lays out in his theory of Minimalism, Lou’s works possess a wholeness of shape that allows one to apprehend that shape and move on to perceptually engage the phenomena of experiencing that shape.  According to Morris, “Characteristic of a gestalt is that once it is established, all the information about it, qua gestalt, is exhausted…One is then both free of the shape and bound to it.”[8]  Using mass quantities of Czech glass beads, Lou’s works are Minimalist in approach and play with the viewer’s psyche by way of gestalt theory.  Seeing the forms created by the numerous beads, one questions what is beneath; a solid shape, more beads?  A focus on one bead does not separate the bead from the overall shape as presented by Lou for the gestalt has already formed in the mind of the viewer.  Thus, a struggle erupts within the viewer to observe the beads as a summation of many or as a unified whole.
Understanding Lou’s work in this way, it is discernable as to why her glitzy work is not simply beauty for beauty’s sake but more deeply phenomenological and topical than her early critics would have liked to believe.  Although the dazzling materiality of these artworks makes it possible for them to stand on their own, beneath their outward brilliance they connect to the audience in many ways: psychologically, socially, politically, and spiritually.  Multiplicity and mass quantities of beads work within minimalist ideology in Lou’s art to create a shimmering oxymoron.  In this respect, Let the Light In leaves viewers wondering how Liza Lou’s next body of work will incorporate beads or if perhaps, the artist is beaded-out. 

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