Artist Spotlight: Liza Lou

Liza Lou’s newest large-scale installation Color Field opened at MCASD in July. Bob Pincus recalls his early encounters with artist Liza Lou and her work.
The year was 1995. I can’t quite recall how I found out about Liza Lou and her remarkable Kitchen. I only know, in retrospect, it was an extremely wise decision to accept an invitation to see it. I really wasn’t prepared for what I saw in her Downtown San Diego studio. You never are when it comes to a first encounter with an unforgettable work of art.
She had literally beaded the surface of a full scale kitchen interior, including a table, plates, saucers, and cutlery. There was beaded water in the sink and a beaded “linoleum” floor too. But beyond this feat was the careful attention to design and detail: exaggerated wood grain, an argyle-like tile pattern on the walls, and colorful dust balls in the dust pan. 
Her work was one of the most delightful discoveries I have made during my years as a critic in San Diego. I may have been the first person to write about her at length, both in the Union-Tribune and in a first exhibition catalog, but the Kitchen propelled her quickly and deservedly to wider renown. She showed her Kitchen at the New Museum in New York in 1996, and by 2002 had garnered a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation. (She moved to Los Angeles in 1997 and still resides there part of the year.) Lou wasn’t planning to exhibit locally at the time, but I knew I had to write about her. My interview with her was great fun; she is a witty, funny, and forthright conversationalist. “What I especially like,” she said back then, “is that at the end of my life I will have created an entire world.” But to realize her vision of even one beaded room had been arduous, Lou admitted. “There were daunting hurdles along the way,” she said. “How do you live and do this?, I asked myself. How does any artist make a huge work of art? Yet I never thought I wouldn’t do it.”
This mix of inspired vision and tenacity has persisted through a procession of remarkable projects. Setting up a large studio in South Africa in 2005 is an example of that sense of determination. Pushing herself to emulate their expert beadwork became an ambition. So, too, does continuing to work on a grand scale, as she has done with Color Field—“my largest sculpture to date,” she tells me. Its 10,000-plus strands of steel threaded with glass beads are the product of her work with Zulu artisans in South Africa. They were installed blade by blade here with the help of volunteers. It is her first solo exhibition in a local museum, though she showed her American Presidents series at Quint Contemporary Art in 1996 and at the California Center for the Arts Museum in 1997. She writes movingly about her years in South Africa in her recent book, Durban Diaries. Lou makes it clear how much she benefits from the artisans’ skills, and she has provided jobs in Durban (in the province of KwaZulu-Natal), where unemployment is shockingly high. It also becomes evident that the bonds with these women are deeper than simply professional ones—for her and for them. 
--Bob Pincus