Liza Lou's artistic practice is based in repetition, formal materiality and social consciousness. She currently divides her time between her studios in Los Angeles and KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Throughout her practice Lou has consistently produced intricate and complex beadwork installations and hangings. Using mundane or dark subject matter, Lou speaks to systems of labour, beauty and human endurance.
Lou was first brought to public attention with her installation, Kitchen (1991-96) when it was shown at the New Museum in New York. Over the five years preceding its exhibition, she created the entire installation by herself. Slowly and laboriously over the course of half a decade, Lou presented a suburban kitchen in all its aspects—its many appliances, furniture and objects, as well as the dirty dishes in the sink—covered in small glass beads. In Kitchen Lou constructed a monument to women's work both in subject matter and process. She developed acute tendinitis in her hands from applying each bead with tweezers. The artwork has since been acquired by the Whitney Museum of American Art.
After Kitchen, with the support of the Whitney Museum of American Art's acquisition of the work, Lou began creating Backyard (1996-99). Backyard is another fully beaded scene, this time of a suburban lawn. It includes objects such as a picnic table, clothesline, tree and grass (250 000 individually beaded blades). Not much later, Lou began working on Trailer (1998-2000)—a mobile home whose interior is covered with black, white and silver beads. The beaded interior objects include a sofa, typewriter and coffee table with magazines. Since Kitchen, Lou's colour palette and gesture has become increasingly minimalist. She has moved to focusing on the subtle details of difference between the beads themselves as objects and subject matter.
The only deviation from Lou's beaded path appeared in a performance called Born Again, in which she reenacts her troubled childhood within her bohemian-turned-born-again Christian family and at the hands of her abusive father. In 2005 Lou moved to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Soon after, she opened a studio there, where she works with traditional Zulu beadworkers. In KwaZulu-Natal, Lou created Security Fence (2005)—an impenetrable chain-link and razor wire enclosure beaded in silver. She also conceived of and constructed Barricade (2007-8)—a gate beaded in 24-karat gold. Both sculptures reflect Lou's experiences in South Africa; they are structures of containment and protection, but they end up as beautiful and alluring objects that support neither goal. Both works were made with the assistance of the Zulu beadworkers. Lou worked alongside these artists and in the process began to reframe her work in the context of traditional and social practice.
Lou was a 2002 MacArthur Fellow. She received the 2013 Anonymous Was A Woman Award, and has held solo exhibitions at Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona; Aspen Art Museum, Colorado; and Neuberger Museum of Art, New York. She has participated in exhibitions at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She has also exhibited at the Lyon Biennale, France; and Taipei Biennial, Taiwan, amongst others.