And the Bead Goes On

Of Finish Fetish and Liza Lou's American Glamorama

In a letter urging a discouraged Ingrid Bergman not to give up on acting, the filmmaker Jean Renoir once wrote that "the cult of great ideas is dangerous and may destroy the real basis for great achievements, that is, the daily, humble work within the framework of a profession." Renoir's philosophy fell wide of the usual range of masculine counsel— it takes big ideas to make big careers, after all. A tacit understanding in the arts has always held that the small, the humble, the diligent and daily carry an automatic and nearly disqualifying feminine taint.

But women's work has been subjected to some rigorous appraisal in the postfeminist era, revitalized in theory and fact. It isn't always necessary to seriousness anymore for artists to butch it up with palette knives and chain saws, not when so many are making tough art with needle and thread. The fact that artist Elaine Reichek critiques "women's work" with her needlepoint samplers doesn't prevent her from taking pleasure in doing the stitching herself. The same might be said of the biomorphic shapes sculptor Oliver Herring creates by knitting Mylar strips. Certainly it's true of the obsessive environments erected by Liza Lou.

Some will remember the California-based Lou for her installation Kitchen, shown a couple of years back at the New Museum. A replica of a typical American kitchen of the late 1950s, Kitchen was built to scale and formed entirely of beads. There was a beaded sink with a beaded faucet, a beaded floor and beaded table with a beaded bowl of fruit. The beaded refrigerator was filled with beaded staples. The installation was antic and obsessive, fascinating and repulsive, and played games with both surface and iconography. It took Liza Lou five years to create and it made her name overnight.

Lou beaded 1 million individual blades of grass for American Glamorama's idealized backyard.
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Lou beaded 1 million individual blades of grass for American Glamorama's idealized backyard.

"I did that entirely outside the art world, with no approval and nothing to confirm what I was doing," Lou said the other morning, sipping an iced coffee at Grand Central Terminal's Vanderbilt Hall. Lou was in town for the opening of American Glamorama, her latest bead extravaganza, displayed inside the renovated station. "Until Kitchenat the New Museum," Lou explained, "I supported myself waitressing and selling prom dresses in Hollywood. I don't want to say the name of the restaurant, but I was a very bad waitress and I got fired."

When Kitchenwas bought by software magnate and art collector Peter Norton and his wife, Eileen, Lou was able, "for the first time," to devote herself to making art. The odd thing is that she did so. That is, she didn't follow the lead of many artists whose first mark of arrival is hiring an army of assistants with M.F.A.s to execute their ideas. (Although she did throw the occasional beading party.) "I can't imagine not making the things myself," claimed Lou. "The daily process is the whole dignity of what it means to be alive."

It's probably easier to say now than during the three-year period when Lou was beading 1 million individual blades of grass for American Glamorama's idealized backyard; or all the beaded detritus that fills a beaded utility closet; or the beaded bodies of three colossal female figures standing sentry over a part of the terminal that once served as a virtual barracks for bums. "This backyard is a dream space. It's 600 square feet, with flowers, a lawn, the whole American dream, but skewed. Here the grass never needs watering. The flowers never die."

The connection between a utility closet, an Oz-like suburban backyard, and three giant Barbies isn't all that apparent until Lou mentions she was reading Don DeLillo's White Noise when the project began. "I was really struck by the dread of objects. I've been really interested in objects as codes. I'd been working on icons from everyday life and thinking about how to use idealized forms to respond to all the cultural information about who we are as humans."

Around this time, Lou got two important commissions. The first was from the Mattel toy company, which asked her to make a piece employing that peerless vessel for cultural information: Barbie. The second was from a wealthy art-collecting couple who consented to send her their trash. "People who collect art already have everything else," she said. "I'm interested in all this stuff from everyday life, these unreal icons and all this junk."

Lou incorporated both commissions into American Glamorama. Two Barbie figures (Business Barbie and Bridal Barbie), provided to her by Mattel, face off against a feminine icon of Lou's own devising. This third figure, called Supersister, is a colossus that bears an uncanny resemblance to RuPaul in his early Pam Grier phase. Although human size, the mannequins' overall dimensions are in proportion to those of the original doll, which, as everyone knows, was fashioned after an erotic German toy called Bild Lili. "She's supposed to be the perfect woman, six feet with an 18-inch waist and legs the size of most people's arms."

As for the trash Lou used, that came direct from her unnamed patrons: "All year long, I was getting these big UPS shipments with their S.O.S. pads, their Fantastik, their Pine-Sol, and their Raid."

"The process," Lou explained, "is to build the shapes, then color them, then add the beads. Building is the fun part. The beads end up taking forever. I usually don't want to wait to have big ideas. It's better to just start the work. It's faster and cheaper and the ideas come from doing that. The beads I use are what fashion people would call bugle beads. They come from the Czech Republic. I like them because they've got a sheen and a uniformity so when you get close, you begin to see the individual digits, the units, but when you step back it's continuous. I don't want you to come away feeling that a human did it. It's not like needlepoint, where you always feel the hand, you're aware of the anguish of the hand.

"I've always loved the California artists whose work had hyperfinished surfaces. They were so idealized that they were over the top. I like to take a surface that's as hard as an auto body, then tweak and tweak it, turn it one more revolution. You may think it's tight enough, but there's always a stronger arm that can turn it again."

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