In 1999, while finishing my art degree at the University of Akron, Liza Lou came to visit. I had never heard of her when a fellow student asked if I was heading to the gallery space after class to “help” the artist in residence. Curious, I went and helped. By “help” I mean I spent hours of my free time over the semester stringing tiny green glass beads onto bits of wire.
“We’re making grass,” she said. I suggested that she was just at our art school for the slave labour and she told me, “that’s kind of what my art is about.” It turns out, Ms. Lou had a lot to say about art, “women’s work” and the art world in general. We had a lot in common and I liked her.
We were working on the grassy area for her “Bead the World” project “Backyard,” and when it was finally installed at the Akron Art Museum (along with “Kitchen,” probably her most famous work and “Portraits,” a grey-scale series of the American Presidents) I was mesmerised.
My love of embroidery and bead work began when I was a little girl- either my mother or my paternal grandmother taught me how to stitch and bead and by the time I was in the 8th grade, I had a soft sculpture mentor and was intently studying artists like Faith Ringgold, Red Grooms and Claus Oldenberg. As I also began my journey in academic feminism, I started to think I was a tiny revolutionary- turning “women’s work” into fine art. Blurring the lines aesthetics and utility, of unpaid labour and high value art. Liza Lou was right up my alley.
She had dropped out of art school (something I had also done, only to come back later) because her instructors thought her idea to make sparkling, room sized glass bead art was ludicrous. She somehow ended up in my backyard. And I in hers. Rather than recount her awards, shows or education, I would like to recall some thing from my time with Liza and her installations, which have continued to resonate with me over the years.
The first thing that comes to mind is the art-students-turned-slave-labourers. We were finishing the grass because she was past deadline, having given herself tendonitis stringing and stitching these enormous testaments to suburban living. Beadwork is incredibly intense on the hands and (as much as embroidery) has long been considered the labour of women. Both of these tasks are undervalued and little appreciated although their products often sell for a mint. For example, do you ever think of the actual real woman who likely spent days of her life sewing the sequins onto the bodice of your wedding gown? The beading sessions became a kind of meditation for me on the topic- sweatshops full of women beading all day, getting this same tendonitis and arthritis, for pennies on the hour so we can pack David’s Bridal with glittery fantasies. Fantasies which almost always go unfulfilled at best and turn into nightmares at worst. Fuck you, David’s Bridal.
There is a powerful connection between that labour and the subject material of “Bead the World.” Admittedly, when you see these things in person, it’s hard to even think about the political and social implications because it’s just so DAMN BEAUTIFUL. “Kitchen” feels like you’re Dorothy leaving the farm house and walking into Munchkinland, but even more. Like the farm house is in real life colour and the door opens to an even higher saturation of shimmering, glowing colour and sparkle. According to Liza, “Kitchen” took five years to produce. The average woman spends an accumulated 3 years of her life working unpaid in the kitchen. (B&Q, 2012) At minimum wage that is nearly $50,000 worth of unpaid labour. The art world is delightfully opaque about pricing and value so I was unable to find how much “Kitchen” sold for before it was donated to the Whitney Museum. Many small accoutrements which would have been placed in the installation sell for $4000 (Campbell’s Soup Can) to $10,000 (Comet Can) on the low end estimates. (Invaluable)
So there’s something to think about. Take away what you will but for me it speaks volumes about the art world and our current economic system. None of it good.
Exploring these 2 works, there are many mysteries to uncover.
In “Kitchen” the “wide open beaver” pinups hiding in the oven’s interior removes any metaphor or entendre. Stick your whatever right on in here, buddy. Also, cherry pie. I’m just going to leave that for you to consider. Shimmering water pours out of the faucet onto similarly glistening “dirty dishes.” In this pristine dream of a sparkly suburban domicile in action the dishes are still always dirty. It’s never done, even in the perfect kitchen where the checked tiled floor will never be shinier or happier.
Critics often point out that “Backyard” speaks to the modern suburban urge to tame nature and force it into leafless clipped lawn perfection, so I’ll skip that. It’s so obvious it hurts (although the beaded carcass of a lawn mower is particularly laugh-inducing) and there are many other interesting details hiding in this sculpture.
Where “Kitchen” felt like a waste of effort, on the part of the missing housewife who may have lived there (and what might she have looked like, I wonder!) “Backyard” feels like a waste of resources. The food’s left out but no one’s sitting at the table. The garden hose is on. This family leaves their beer cans crumpled on the lawn! Suspiciously, for all the detail in this installation, there is no trash bin. No. Trash. Bin. What the hell?
Perhaps because of all the student slave labour (she mentioned that she had drug this around to several art schools before coming to mine) “Backyard” took only two years to complete, at a whopping 600 sq. feet. They are interesting numbers that possibly can help us understand the difference between relying on one member of the group (often the woman) compared to splitting the labour up between everyone.
Some items of note: the flower bed calls (again?) to Munchkinland. Does that make the ruby grill some homage to the ruby slippers? There are of course a pair of eponymous pink flamingoes doing their flamingo walk under a clothesline and even some tiny flies hanging around.
Seemingly less feminist in nature, the sheer size of “Backyard” almost lends itself to a forgiveness of the objects themselves- they don’t feel like indicators of a specific social problem or the patriarchal oppressors of the everywoman. Rather, they are a shimmery reminder of the things we take for granted- the food left out, the discarded beer can, the lawnmower left, job half done- yet there is immense beauty here. The beauty of the ordinary, I suppose. As a viewer all those years ago, standing in the finished room and finding myself wishing my own backyard was as spectacular as this one, a thought slid into my mind. Maybe my world really is this beautiful, I just need to open my eyes to it. Maybe, like Dorothy, I could find gaudy, sparkly heaven and I didn’t even need to leave Akron.
You can learn more about Liza Lou, including what she is up to today, at her website: LizaLou.com