At a glance, they appeared to be a series of abstract paintings – some presenting a grid-like pattern of subtly shifting tones, and varying in scale from large to quite-large. Liza Lou’s exhibition at the White Cube, Hoxton Square, initially, seemed beautifully arranged and the palette rather calming, but not particularly unusual. Some pieces called to mind Robert Rauschenberg’s White paintings, but as I moved closer I was astonished to find that I was not looking at paint at all – but beads! And even so, the more I looked and realised how unpainted they were, the more links I was able to make between the beaded surfaces and the “paintings” they sought to mimic.
Firstly, the use of glass beads to this effect – stitched onto cotton-backed stretchers – actually is extremely appropriate to the mimicry of paint. The beads, stitched in repeated lengths of colour and shape, allude to the sculptural qualities of acrylic or oil. In some areas, they cast shadow to extend the visual components of the work beyond the two-dimensional plane. This occurs very successfully in Untitled, #1 (2011-12) - where an intricate mesh-work of interlinking beaded threads veil an empty wooden frame; the shadows cast within are reminiscent of sacred and elaborately constructed architectural interiors. Other works, such as Untitled, #17 present neatly aligned rows of beads with jarring, wave-like ruptures rippling the surface area.
Secondly, the visual qualities and optical enigmas generated by the use of glass beads are similar to the tricks played by layers of paint. At times, you wonder if a tonal shift is due to a colour-change of the beads themselves, or of the fabric on which they are mounted, or of the thread by which they are fastened. “Painting” is often loosely defined as the application of pigment onto a support, and our experience of abstraction in painting (think Jackson Pollock) lends itself to the belief that it is achieved by occasionally slapdash, expressionistic, and improvised means. Lou’s beadwork’s resemble abstract paintings, but the painstaking labour and planning evident mean that, in terms of execution, they are anything but.
Lou started out as a painter, but discovered this particular mode of practice at the age of eighteen, when a friend dragged her into a bead shop. Her Kitchen installation, constructed from 1991 to 1995, is a representation of an ordinary domestic space – but is rendered astonishing by the fact that every single surface is a mosaic of glittering beads. Lou used papier-mâché to make most of the objects, which were painted and then received coatings of beads; the most arresting details of the piece are perhaps the open packet of Lays crisps, or the glimmering surfaces of newspaper headlines and detergent brands. In a sense, the abstract works on display at the White Cube are a departure from this investigation of representation, and yet when abstraction concentrates meaning solely on the surface of the work, they are no less jarring.
It is perhaps appropriate, in fact, that beads are used to create abstract works. According to Lois Sherr Dubin, author of The History of Beads (Thames & Hudson, 1995), beads are perhaps the earliest evidence for abstract thinking in human society, dating back to well over thirty-thousand years ago. We need only think of the widespread cultures of beaded jewellery and garments, abacuses, and prayer-beads, to realise that they have long been used as highly-abstracted symbols for a variety of data. In fact, the word “bead” derives from the Anglo-Saxon word “bidden” – meaning, “to pray” – and “bede”, meaning “prayer” – which arguably ties the word to a mode of symbolism and communication. Lou’s Zulu Love Letter No.2 (2011-12), emphatically relates to the customs and practices of Zulu artisans – with whom she has lived and worked in Durban, South Africa, for the past seven years. According to Sherr Dubin, a traditional Zulu “love letter” is a beaded work in which a girl or woman conveys her romantic feelings to a suitor or husband. Meaning is generated by an abstracted combination of colours, and is usually only understood by the couple; an abstracted and very personal language.
Lou’s work appears to encompass a variety of approaches to beadwork; employing beads as her primary material, she highlights the intensely time-consuming and detailed labour involved in the manufacture of such works. In the guise of abstract paintings and without the constraints of representation, the beads themselves are allowed to shine, and perhaps allow us to meditate on the wide variety of ideas, cultures and quantities that they have signified throughout human history.