publication of the International Sculpture Center
to Contents page>
Not What It Appears
A Conversation with Liza Lou
by Jan Garden Castro
Mixed media, glass beads, and Swarovski crystal,
24 x 24 29 in. se.
courtesy Deitch Projects
Liza Lou is an artist
who self-consciously examines and employs notions of seduction to examine
American history, daily life, and the hidden values and terrors lurking
beneath the glittering surfaces of the products we consume. Using
glass beads, Swarovski crystal, and papier mâché forms, Lou
probes the varied ways that our culture literally conceals its dullness
as well as its dangers with ingenious packaging. Her surfaces dazzle the
eye and tease us with familiar brand names and images. During the past
12 years, she has created free-standing sculptures and major installations,
including the boldly colorful Kitchen (199195) and Back
Yard (199597). In contrast, the series Presidents
and the installation Testimony (19992002) employ a monochromatic
palette. Testimony, exhibited at Deitch Projects in New York in
fall 2002, is a narrative with 17 works, including a falling
Man, a menacing Dog, a blazing fire, a wood grain-patterned
Map of the United States, a hunters Trailer, and a
Relief of a drowned blonde child in her communion dress.
was an evocative performance, Born Again, which reminded me of
Martha Grahams blend of a particular myth, minimal set, and movement.
Viewers shared the stage with the actor. Dressed simply in black and using
only a chair as a prop, Lou began by singing an evangelical prayer in
a small childs voice. Slowly, she acted out the story of a four-year-old
girl growing up in a family devoted to the ministry, the father preaching
and the mother teaching. The girl is compelled to obey the word of God:
I once knew a little girl as vain as you and Jesus took her little
face and smashed it through the windshield of a car. The mother
and her two daughters respond differently to the maltreatment they suffer.
The girls story is a secret. Using her body with a dancers
precision to evoke a childs physical and psychological states, Lou
lets viewers directly experience stories of violence and outrage, as well
as stories of rapture, healing, and wonder. The girls belief system
helps her to survive; she is one soul in a larger picture of people suffering
due to poverty, delusional behavior, and other ills. No one asks whose
story this is, if it is true, or how it is connected to the Relief
of a drowned child.
Mixed media and glass beads,
48 x 26 x 16 in.
courtesy Deitch Projects
Jan Garden Castro:
We are sitting in the tiny viewing area of a 1949 Spartan Mobile Mansion
trailer, one of the large works in Testimony. Its interior is entirely
covered with black, white, gray, and silver glass beads; it features a
kitchenette, living room, bedroom, furnishings, two rifles, two bottles
of whiskey, two packs of cigarettes, a typewriter, a camera, and a body.
Who do you imagine living here? What is behind this vignette?
This is a trailer that was abandoned. Somebody had lived in here for years
and then leftit
to rot. One had the feeling that things had ended badly.
I tore out the walls, the cabinetry, rewired everything, and built everything
inside to scale within the space.
book titles are great.
really is a Shooters Bible. How to Hunt Deer is not an original
title. Men Today: Flesh Farm of Horror is a magazine. I really
had fun looking at male culture after doing so many pieces that reference
the man dead or drunk? We just see his leg.
LL: Its an
unfolding story; we see the bottles of alcohol and a gun near his foot.
I was interested in describing loneliness and despair through objects,
and at the end of it, I decided that I had to leave a body. That was the
last thing I did in the piece. There are clues: the vice grip, the knife,
the ball of twine. Each object evokes something that might have happened.
deer framed on a wall and books on deer hunting suggest an obsession.
LL: You also see
a deer figurine on the kitchen counter and deer silhouettes at the foot
of the bed.
the monotone color scheme of silver, black, and white refer to television
in the 50s?
LL: I was
thinking more of film noir from the 40s and 50s. I wanted
to imply that the viewer was part of the crime scene. Also, I was using
this palette to talk more about sculpture. When you see a lot of color,
you get distracted from the form. I was hoping that by taking it down
in terms of that vibrant color, youd start to see the actual shape
of things: the sinking of the chair to look as though somebodys
been sitting in it for a while, the slump of the sofa.
crumpled Marlboro package is an incredible facsimile, as are his socks
and his jacket on the wall.
Kitchen (with detail), 199195.
Mixed media and beads, 8 x 11 x 24 ft.
Anthony Cunha - courtesy Deitch Projects
LL: There are details
that I had fun with: the Navajo blanket on the bed, the fringe on the
bottom of the sofa and the curtains, the little horse motif on the curtains
in the breakfast nook.
old typewriter, the TV, which is on.
LL: The soundtrack
of men arguing in the background is important to me. I was excited about
doing a piece that limited access; watching people go in one at a time
was thrilling for me. In the past, things were so colorful, accessible,
the trailer actually go on the road?
LL: It gets towed
on a low boy. It also can be towed on its own, but we dont do that
anymore since the inside has become kind of precious. The funny thing
is that, early on, trailers were a sign of leisure. A house trailer was
a glamorous thing at one point and now, of course, it has a whole other
Deitch has remarked that youve invented yourself as an artist. How
did you become an artist?
LL: I didnt
come at art-making from the usual route, which is to go to art school
and get an MFA. In that route, there are the systems of the court: graduating
magna cum laude or being surrounded by professors and peers who appreciate
your work. I had to decide early on to make art for my own reasons, because
I wasnt receiving support from any structures or systems. I felt
as though I had a rich inner world to delve into, and it seemed more interesting
to me to go into that than to try to fit into a university situation.
When you make art from your own place, you may have an opportunity to
communicate something that you didnt imagine possible. Rilke, in
his Letters to a Young Poet, talks about going within and finding yourself
and in that place of solitude, you connect with the universe.
some point, either in or out of school, you started finding your own path.
How did you educate yourself?
Back Yard (with detail), 199699.
Mixed media and beads, 528 square ft.
courtesy Deitch Projects
LL: It began
in art school. Then at a certain point, I realized that school was about
learning how to learn. Once I got that, I realized I didnt really
have to be
there. The sooner you can tackle life, the better.
there any particular influences as you were working on Kitchen?
the five-year period when I was working on Kitchen [first exhibited
in January 1996], I referred to everything from womens history to
Pop art to outsider art to needlepoint to mosaics and, in terms
of technique, of course, beadwork. In terms of influences at the time,
I knew that I was going against the grain to be working on a huge, expensive
project during the recession of the early 90s.
did you manage?
LL: I waitressed,
sold prom dresses, tap-danced on steam boatsyou name it. I thought
it was funny to hear artists complaining that NEA funding was drying up.
If youre working out of a sense of necessity, youre going
to find a way to do the thing youre going to do.
you invite friends to critique your work?
LL: I definitely
didnt do that. I have friends who are writers who would tell me
about workshops and critiques they were doing. I thought, If I do
that Ill be destroyed. I felt the less input, the better.
What I was doing was so far outside what anyone else was doing, and it
didnt look like art to anyone. I wanted to have the time to resolve
things for myself.
did you work on Kitchen?
LL: I started
in my apartment in L.A., working at the kitchen table; eventually, I moved
to a loft downtown. Looking out of the window as I was working at 3 or
4 a.m., Id see trucks stop across the street to pick up hookers,
and I thought, this is just a stones throw away from the idyllic
life Im creating. Hell and destruction were all around me. Kitchen
was my response. Then a huge earthquake came in 93, and my studio
was condemned. I had an hour to evacuate. Kitchen was well under
way. I had to leave the sink and the cabinetry Id built. I could
only take what was completed: the stove, the refrigerator, and the table.
A bunch of friends came to help. We wrapped the work in blankets and threw
it into the back of a Ryder truck.
Its very hard
when you have an idea that takes up space. When youre a painter,
you can roll up your canvas and go. For a sculptor, its incredibly
cumbersome. Its hard finding the space and time to make work, let
alone grapple with the things youre trying to say as an artist.
did you do?
LL: I ended up finding
an affordable studio in downtown San Diego. Three years later, I finished
Kitchen. Those three years were a turning point. I realized that making
art is not as much about what youre doing as what youre not
doing. Neighbors would comment, I see you come in but never see
you go out. I was pretty driven.
Trailer, Im under the impression that your work contains
secrets that the viewer cant quite see.
Mixed media and glass beads,
76 x 71 x 45 in.
courtesy Deitch Projects
LL: The work
is about overload. There are many secrets. For example, in Kitchen,
theres a whole mosaic with a quilt pattern and a poem [by Emily
Dickinson] Against Idleness and Mischief, but a wall covers
it, so you cant see it. You can pick up a
bowl, and the inside and underside are covered.
did you develop the theme of Testimony? Weve talked about
the Trailer. Could we talk about the Man who is receiving the spiritis
he seeing a
dove that is also the Holy Ghost?
LL: The dove
could represent the Holy Spirit. Hopefully, there are multiple meanings.
In Christian iconography, you see the dove descending on the head; in
this case, the bird is actually coming out of
the mouth, out of the body and into the sky.
understand that the one balancing foot is anchored. Still, at the opening,
viewers were remarking on the incredible way this figure is balanced.
notion of a being between earth and air seems new.
LL: I wanted
to contain that kind of difficulty in an object. My challenge was to say
many things with one piece.
JGC: It goes with the theme of Testimony. Was the little
girl who is drowning in an open grave the same girl in your performance?
Is she related to the Man?
in the show is everything Ive been thinking about, so its
all intertwined. Relief is inspired by the Ophelia painting
by John Everett Millais. I riffed on that by making her a child wearing
a communion dress. Im alluding to the Victorian obsession with photographs
of dead children and also to the glass reliquaries that you see in chapels
in Italy. Doing a piece under glass had all kinds of references for me.
in a lower room by itself gives Relief a
special intensity. The performance Born
many contemporary issues, including evangelical fervor, escapism, poverty,
and child abuse. No other performance artist has addressed these universal
dilemmas so directly.
Relief (Untitled), 2002.
Wood, glass, mixed media, and glass beads,
30 x 54 x 12 in.
courtesy Deitch Projects
LL: For me,
that work operates on many levels, but the basic theme is one of transcendence,
and the capacity for the human heart to survive, to heal, to love, to
triumph. This transcendence is the same operating principle my sculpture
aims to achieve, which is the metamorphosis of subjects that are not worth
visualizationdust balls, dirty dishes, a closet full of cleaning
equipment, a common backyardso that the work celebrates a victory
over the wrecking ball of the ordinary. Writing that piece, I was interested
in telling a story about a world in which nothing is what it appears to
very strong point of the performance was the way some people hide the
truth from themselves.
LL: In my
work, I always deal with denial and fantasy. I have tried to transform
everyday life into a kind of retina-squelching vision that makes your
eyes ache. The counterpoint to my sculpture and over-the-top installations
was to stand alone on a stage and tell my story. As Emily Dickinson says,
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.
told Alena Williams (for a Tema Celeste article, May/June 2001)
that your beadwork is inspired by the mosaics of Ravenna and St. Peters
Basilica in Rome.
LL: The material
is not the message. I started out as a painter.
When I discovered beads, it was like walking into an incredible paint
store. It was one of those moments. To this day, I dont consider
myself any good at working with beads; its just that I have a
vision for them. Its garish material, and I try to balance that.
you discuss the making of your Presidents series, which I
understand is ongoing. You told the San Francisco Examiner that
you were cynical about all American past presidents except for
LL: He was
a great president; however, to be quite honest, Im cynical about
good old Abe, too. The more you learn about history, the more you start
to be cynical about everything. Presidents is a never-ending
project, and that appeals to me. I add a new portrait every four to eight
years. I was invited to show the series at the Smithsonians Renwick
Gallery during the 2000 presidential election. When the time came to go
to Washington for the opening, the Supreme Court had not yet elected our
president. Meanwhile, the show must go on, so I drew an outline based
on the heads of both Gore and Bush and filled in the face with solid white
beads, and we hung that in the gallery for a few weeks. When the Supreme
Court finally announced its decision, the museum shipped the portrait
back to my studio where I picked off all the white beads with a chisel,
filled it in with George Ws features, and sent it back to them for
the rest of the exhibition.
JGC: How does
it feel to be awarded a MacArthur genius award?
Map (USA), 2002.
Wood and glass beads, 85 x 115 x 2 in.
courtesy Deitch Projects
LL: It doesnt
change anything, and yet it changes everything. Ive been working
for a long time on the periphery, and I still am. It doesnt change
that. Having said that, it is an incredible honor. It feels daunting.
like the casual way your wooden beams lean against the wall.
Would you talk about your use of wood grain patterns?
LL: Taken on its
own, wood grain becomes abstract painting, and I was interested in pushing
that. For the map of the United States, the wood grain can represent topography;
I like that double play. It represents a map, but you never find out where
are your present inspirations?
days, Im most inspired by literature: that thick language of Toni
Morrison or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the poetry of Pessoa. I was reading
Faulkners Absalom, Absalom as I was working on Relief.
Language doesnt always have to lead you somewhere. It can be a labyrinth.
Did that happen or didnt that happen? Is he dying or is he alive?
Thats the same realm in which art hoversa place in which literal
meaning is up for grabs, where you are out into the stratosphere of feeling,
memory, and association.
Jan Garden Castro
is curator/author of Sonia Delaunay: La Moderne and author of The
Art & Life of Georgia OKeeffe and The Last Frontier.