Dog, 2002. Mixed media and glass beads, 48 x 26 x 16 in. Photo: Courtesy Deitch Projects.

American History Is Not What It Appears to Be: A Conversation with Liza Lou

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 (1991–95) and Back Yard (1995–97). In contrast, the series “Presidents” and the installation Testimony (1999–2002) 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 hunter’s Trailer, and a Relief of a drowned blonde child in her communion dress.

Back Yard, 1996–99. Mixed media and beads, 528 square ft. Photo: Courtesy Deitch Projects.

Accompanying Testimony was an evocative performance, Born Again, which reminded me of Martha Graham’s 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 child’s 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 girl’s story is a secret. Using her body with a dancer’s precision to evoke a child’s physical and psychological states, Lou lets viewers directly experience stories of violence and outrage, as well as stories of rapture, healing, and wonder. The girl’s 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.

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?

Liza Lou: 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.

Back Yard (detail), 1996–99. Mixed media and beads, 528 square ft. Photo: Courtesy Deitch Projects.

JGC: The book titles are great.

LL: There really is a Shooter’s 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 women’s work.

JGC: Is the man dead or drunk? We just see his leg.

LL: It’s 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.

JGC: The 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.

Fire, 2002. Mixed media, glass beads, and Swarovski crystal, 24 x 24 29 in. Photo: Courtesy Deitch Projects

JGC: Does 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, you’d start to see the actual shape of things: the sinking of the chair to look as though somebody’s been sitting in it for a while, the slump of the sofa.

JGC: The crumpled Marlboro package is an incredible facsimile, as are his socks and his jacket on the wall.

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.

JGC: The 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, embracing.

Kitchen, 1991–95. Mixed media and beads, 8 x 11 x 24 ft. Photo: Anthony Cunha – courtesy Deitch Projects.

JGC: Does 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 don’t 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 connotation.

Kitchen (detail), 1991–95. Mixed media and beads, 8 x 11 x 24 ft. Photo: Anthony Cunha – courtesy Deitch Projects.

JGC: Jeffrey Deitch has remarked that you’ve invented yourself as an artist. How did you become an artist?

LL: I didn’t 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t 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.

JGC: At some point, either in or out of school, you started finding your own path. How did you educate yourself?

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 didn’t really have to be there. The sooner you can tackle life, the better.

JGC: Were there any particular influences as you were working on Kitchen?

LL: During the five-year period when I was working on Kitchen [first exhibited in January 1996], I referred to everything from women’s 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.

Man, 2002. Mixed media and glass beads, 76 x 71 x 45 in. Photo: Courtesy Deitch Projects.

JGC: How did you manage?

LL: I waitressed, sold prom dresses, tap-danced on steam boats—you name it. I thought it was funny to hear artists complaining that NEA funding was drying up. If you’re working out of a sense of necessity, you’re going to find a way to do the thing you’re going to do.

JGC: Did you invite friends to critique your work?

LL: I definitely didn’t 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 I’ll be destroyed.” I felt the less input, the better. What I was doing was so far outside what anyone else was doing, and it didn’t look like art to anyone. I wanted to have the time to resolve things for myself.

Map (USA), 2002. Wood and glass beads, 85 x 115 x 2 in. Photo: Courtesy Deitch Projects.

JGC: Where 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., I’d see trucks stop across the street to pick up hookers, and I thought, this is just a stone’s throw away from the idyllic life I’m 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 I’d 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.

It’s very hard when you have an idea that takes up space. When you’re a painter, you can roll up your canvas and go. For a sculptor, it’s incredibly cumbersome. It’s hard finding the space and time to make work, let alone grapple with the things you’re trying to say as an artist.

JGC: What 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 you’re doing as what you’re not doing. Neighbors would comment, “I see you come in but never see you go out.” I was pretty driven.

JGC: From Trailer, I’m under the impression that your work contains secrets that the viewer can’t quite see.

LL: The work is about overload. There are many secrets. For example, in Kitchen, there’s a whole mosaic with a quilt pattern and a poem [by Emily Dickinson] “Against Idleness and Mischief,” but a wall covers it, so you can’t see it. You can pick up a bowl, and the inside and underside are covered.

JGC: How did you develop the theme of Testimony? We’ve talked about the Trailer. Could we talk about the Man who is receiving the spirit—is 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.

Relief (Untitled), 2002. Wood, glass, mixed media, and glass beads, 30 x 54 x 12 in. Photo: Courtesy Deitch Projects.

JGC: I understand that the one balancing foot is anchored. Still, at the opening, viewers were remarking on the incredible way this figure is balanced. The 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?

LL: Everything in the show is everything I’ve been thinking about, so it’s 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. I’m 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.

JGC: Being in a lower room by itself gives Relief a special intensity. The performance Born Again addresses many contemporary issues, including evangelical fervor, escapism, poverty, and child abuse. No other performance artist has addressed these universal dilemmas so directly.

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 visualization—dust balls, dirty dishes, a closet full of cleaning equipment, a common backyard—so 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 be.

JGC: One 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.”

JGC: You told Alena Williams (for a Tema Celeste article, May/June 2001) that your beadwork is inspired by the mosaics of Ravenna and St. Peter’s 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 don’t consider myself any good at working with beads; it’s just that I have a vision for them. It’s garish material, and I try to balance that.

JGC: Could 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 Abraham Lincoln.

LL: He was a great president; however, to be quite honest, I’m 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 Smithsonian’s 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 W’s 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?

LL: It doesn’t change anything, and yet it changes everything. I’ve been working for a long time on the periphery, and I still am. It doesn’t change that. Having said that, it is an incredible honor. It feels daunting.

JGC: I 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 you are.

JGC: What are your present inspirations?

LL: These days, I’m most inspired by literature: that thick language of Toni Morrison or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the poetry of Pessoa. I was reading Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom as I was working on Relief. Language doesn’t always have to lead you somewhere. It can be a labyrinth. Did that happen or didn’t that happen? Is he dying or is he alive? That’s the same realm in which art hovers—a 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 O’Keeffe and The Last Frontier.