"I grew up in a haze of ecstatic spiritual events," says Liza Lou. "We didn't need Santa Claus. That was kid's stuff. We had exorcisms." And so the adult Lou continues her art of exorcism, taking the form of incredible installations and mixed media sculptures. Her one-woman show in London at White Cube (a very hip gallery on Hoxton Square) is her first U.K. solo exhibition and contains seven very powerful works. A description of these pieces--mostly made of fiberglass and glass beads -- cannot really capture their effect in person because of the amazing detail and luminescence. In this show the subjects are mostly painful (martyrdom, imprisonment, execution, suicide) while the medium (the exquisite glass beadwork covering all surfaces) gives it a stunning glow. Liza Lou was born in 1969 to Pentecostal parents, both of whom had been artists in New York City, he a painter and she a singer, dancer, and actress.
Converted by evangelist Billy Graham in 1965, her parents -- after burning all their books -- had fled their art-strewn loft to the presumably safer moral environment of the Midwest, specifically a small town in Minnesota. In the video which accompanies the London show, "Born Again," Lou talks to the camera for 51 minutes about her upbringing to the age of six, when her abusive father fled his family; Lou didn't see him again until many years later.
Lou said in an interview about the video, "I needed to transform some of my darker, oppressive experiences into something transcendent. It's the basic rule of all artists, I think. To rescue things somehow," a statement which relates to the exhibit as well. For Lou's art is all about the beauty in the horrible. In her piece "The Vessel," Christ is holding up a large, heavy piece of wood for the crucifix, muscles in his arms engaged, but he is headless. His neck reveals a gaping wound, dark red like blood -- a vessel from which we can drink his blood, I suppose, or recognize his sacrifice, or be struck dumb by the sadism of such standard Christian iconography.
Nearby is a piece called "Security Fence," which is a metal cage over six foot tall with barbed wire on top, a kind of holding pen that brings to mind the prisoners on Guantanamo Bay. It is created out of steel, razor wire, and glass beads. The beads are silver and cover every inch of the surface so that the work sparkles in the harsh spotlight -- both a thing of horror and a thing of beauty. This is Lou's special gift, that she can combine these seeming opposites. She recognizes the paradoxes of human experience, that love and hate are not so much opposites as kissing cousins, that our enemy one day is our lover the next (or vice versa). On a political level, this means recognizing ourselves in the enemy.
Lou won a MacArthur genius award in 2002, at the age of 33, no doubt a recognition of both the brilliance of her concepts and her commitment to the tedious process of their execution. A single work can take months or even years to complete because of the tiny glass beads. An earlier work, "Kitchen" (a full-scale room covered in beads), took four years to complete.
When confronted with a Lou work, the viewer becomes involved in a fashion similar to theater experience. One steps into a "scene," as is the case with "Cell," the installation one looks at through a narrow window hole, with its florescent lighted ceiling and cinder-block-like walls. All that is in this cell is a bucket for urine. But we are in the cell too, witnesses, as we look it over, noticing first only the general sense of ugly, empty despair, but then realizing that thousands and thousands of tiny grey beads of various shades of color cover all the surfaces, that the floor is not stained cement but beads -- just as the urine stains are beads, and the wall's stony surface. It is a trompe l'oeil masterpiece, its dimensions based on those of a death row cell in San Quentin, but its texture that of dream or nightmare. Color and materials effect our perception such that the prison experience gets frozen into art while maintaining its shock value.
Lou is an American artist, based in Los Angeles. Her work appears to be moving in a more consciously political direction, with these latest works particularly apt for the present historical moment. All of us have seen media images of the barbed wire box-like cells of Guantanamo or the prison torture routines in Abu Graib. With kidnappings and beheadings in Iraq, we daily confront the violence of our contemporary world. Lou's work, then, becomes like walking the Stations of the Cross, and in the London exhibition there is plenty of empty space in which to contemplate her mesmerizing vision. - Victoria Sullivan
White Cube 48 Hoxton Square London, England. March 3 to April 8, 2006 Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding or laughing, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees.