Reviewing Liza Lou, The Kitchen (1991)

April 21, 2020

It was like love at first sight. I was instantly drawn to the radiating beauty of delicately woven beads in the room-size installation standing in the corner of the 6th Floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art. The vibrant colored pieces constituted a kitchen of the kind, that could be found in any home.

The glittering light reflected off this structure created a dance of shadow and light. This 96 × 132 × 168-inch work has three walls, decorated with light blue, navy, orange, asparagus green, and dirty peach diamond-shaped tiles, each vertically interrupted by a random image: a rose, a spatula, a pot, and an iron. There is a window on each wall. Wavy, pinkish brown curtains on each window are decorated with patterns of green flowers. The cabinets attached on the wall next to them, and drawers and cabinets below the sink counter are patterned with wood grain displaying a colorful mirage-like patterns of dark, light, and medium brown and gold. The sink is on the wall facing the viewer. To the right side of the sink sits a refrigerator. The sink is filled with dirty dishes that are ready to be washed. A container of dish soap, a toaster and even the patterns on the dirty dishes were crafted as if they were real. On the left wall is a stove, on top of which is a pot and, in the oven, a tray full of pie. Just left of this oven, is a sweeper and dustpan set and a box of Tide. In front of the right wall are a small, round table and chair. On top of the table sits cereal boxes of Frosted Flakes and Captain Crunch, along with a newspaper, a cup of tea, a plate with several slices of toast and a bowl full of uneaten miscellaneous food. It seemed apparent that there was something going on in this installation. It was as though someone had just pulled out a kitchen belonging to a family home during an ongoing casual breakfast. But the most impressive thing about this work was that all of these details — even the written words on the cereal boxes, newspaper and the distinct patterns were all hand-woven beads. I felt an immediate pull into a morning of an everyday American home, surrounded by all these indications of mass production and consumerism. But there seemed to be a bigger message thrown at me here, hidden in the newspaper in big capital letters spelling out, ‘HOUSEWIFE BEADS THE WORLD’. I glanced at the installation again and this time a feeling of responsibility and power rushed through me, compelling me to really contemplate the concept of a woman’s domestic life.

Aside from its glittering material, the subtle and yet witty statement of the artist made the work all the more sophisticated and curious. With a work like this, one could easily assume that the installation was executed with sufficient amount of extremely deep observation, concentration, and the ability to understand the whole of what it will look like when it’s finished.

Searching for the Real

When I first encountered this work at the Whitney Museum of American Art, I was enthralled by the beauty of the material — the colors of the beads and the reflections they created — everything. The life-sized kitchen made me feel as if I were in the middle of breakfast one morning, in my own kitchen. The way this work captivated me was almost palpable.

The vivid work was created by an American artist, Liza Lou, whose craze for beads started when she walked into a bead store one day as a student at San Francisco Art Institute in California. She spent 5 years, from 1991 to 1996, creating a kitchen that looks real in every way possible. The work provides a panoramic experience through its lifelike size, and its full resemblance to an everyday kitchen. Lou deals with the idea that her work “[was] really taken from another place.”[1] She wanted to make a kitchen where the viewer can visualize the routine that takes place there to the level of five-senses experience. Throughout her career, Lou continuously searches for the artifacts of “real” to embed them in her work. Her decision that to deliver what is true, not fake, her art should be life-size was influenced by her encounter with George Segal’s work at Walker Arts Center in Minnesota where she spent her childhood.[2]

There is a special connection between her material, beads, and kitchen that she builds. During the process, both working with beads and cooking require long and careful labor. They are both completed with the hands of the people — usually women. She states, about the art making process,

“How the work was made was as important as what was being made. It wasn’t about doing things faster or more cheaply. It was about doing things more beautifully, more carefully, and with real concern and care about the whole person who was working with me.”[3]

It is not so much that the work was done over such a long period of time, but rather the whole process of weaving with her own hands — where the ‘real’ residues of her touch and her experiences reside — that she finds meaningful.

Bead by bead, with a pair of tweezers, she went through repetitive labor, which resemble daily housework — never ending and tiresome. Using this material of radiating beauty to build an ordinary place like a kitchen, Lou gives me a new perspective on this place, evoking same empathy and resonance created in places such as bedrooms where one feels most safe and private. I have a sudden realization of domestic beauty, of the care and love that underlies all the baking of pies, the cooking and sewing done by all the mothers and grandmothers[4] in this small, plain place. Lou says that “there’s no memory to that [domestic labor]. There is nothing holding that. There is no monument to that kind of labor. And you can never see the beauty that’s there.”[5] It is clear that she intends to give more value to the labor that takes place there every day, yet still unappreciated, unrecognized, and uncelebrated.

Throughout her artistic career, Lou always searches her ways to deliver what is real. In her work, The Kitchen, she finds the long-lost value and appreciation for domestic labor and even makes us contemplate the woman’s labor of the 90s. She penetrates the meaning of beads as material as well as the process by bringing their raw and naked characteristics as ingredients to form her idea. Lou refers to the her work as a “radiant, ecstatic experience,”[6] and about the finished result she states, “reality is somehow magical.”[7] The ‘realness’ that is unveiled through her work and the way it changes people as domestic workers is the magic that resonates in The Kitchen.

In recent years, she has continued her journey to discover realness especially of the material she chose — beads thus, moving to South Africa where tradition of using beads began and still lives today. She is now working with local artisans creating more works that still speak its power on its own.

The “Years of the Women”

Despite the long years the artist spent on this particular piece that is not the main focus here, what is important to understand is the historical context when it was built. Liza Lou started making The Kitchen in 1991 at the start of the Third Wave of Feminism. Some major changes in women’s rights were made during the years 1991 through 1996. Unlike those of First and Second wave, the Third Wave embraced younger women and was geared towards fighting for “communities that were previously left out of feminist goals and to recognize the intersectionality of oppression” (Anand, “A Brief Summary of The Third Wave of Feminism.”). The demarcation of the wave was the accusation of sexual harassment that Anita Hill made against the Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991. Thomas denied the accusation, claiming that he was the victim of a “high-tech lynching” (Anand, “A Brief Summary of The Third Wave of Feminism.”). Hill testified in hearing in front of white, male Senators. Both Thomas and Hill were African Americans and the consequence was shameful. The Senate voted 52–48 to confirm Clarence Thomas as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. This is possibly because it was a time where they needed an African American judge and Thomas was a popular candidate. Thomas was confirmed in this incident, but Hill’s accusation started a fire in the spirits of many young women.

During these years women’s rights showed improvement. Various laws to strengthen women’s rights such as The Family Medical Leave Act, which allowed women to take unpaid leave for family and medical emergencies, were set up. And women’s reproductive rights became a major theme for feminists during this time as well. Instead of women being expected to simply stay home as housewives, the new regulations gave women some hope of having full control of themselves as human beings.

Politically, in 1993, the first female Attorney General, Janet Wood Reno took office and Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the second woman on the Supreme Court. And in 1995, Hillary Clinton gave her famous ‘Women’s Rights are Human Rights’ speech at the UN. Empowerment of women started to intensify itself as part of the results to the movement.

There were also cultural and social influences that played a part in increasing the power of women. With the development of social media and technology, the means of spreading of messages for women’s rights became more various. Movies and TV shows such as Thelma and Louise (1991) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997), which had strong female figures on the front line, became young girl’s role models. The girls of this time period were influenced by the pop culture that reflected Third Wave goals.

It is natural to think that what Liza Lou attempted to do with The Kitchen is a genuine effect of feminist circumstances that she was living at the time. But what is interesting is that Lou does not reject or fight against the fact that domestic work is primarily still done by women. She doesn’t say that it is not fair that domestic chores are only for women. But rather, she revalues and repositions the domestic labor through disclosing its hidden beauty and its importance. She claims women’s power through the delicately hand-beaded newspaper that reads “HOUSEWIVES BEADS THE WORLD,” reevaluates the little value and appreciation that housewives received for domestic labor that they have accomplished.

For this rather vital topic, Liza Lou has chosen an approach that effectively manifests beauty through the labor of beading. Her approach can be compared to that of more political art works by, for example, the Guerrilla Girls. Unlike Lou, the Guerrilla Girls utilize facts to fight for human rights, including women’s rights. They take statistics and fact-based information and turn them into a form of art which is satirical, humorous and sometimes even pompous at times. While they both definitely grab public attention, Lou’s work makes you stop your steps, first to grasp the beauty of the material, and second, in an attempt to experience the work in a more hand on level as it is a life size, large scale installation. There are values to that in terms of public’s museum experience.

Identification of Women Beyond Consciousness

Historically, Liza Lou’s The Kitchen (1991–96), a beaded installation of a life-sized American kitchen, is a production that falls between the second and third feminist waves. The second wave, which lasted roughly from 1963 to the 1980s, had its emphasis on raising awareness about domestic violence and fought against deeply embedded “systematic sexism — the belief that women’s highest purposes were domestic and decorative and the social standards that reinforced that belief.”[9] The second wave, for Lou, raised questions regarding domestic work and how it is viewed compared to working outside the home. This perception of women, as best suited to domestic labor, reflecting stereotypes that have long existed regarding their roles, is affecting women in a much more complex way today. Lou’s frustration and her way of coping with it is expressed through “references to derogatory popular images of women, things that kind of piss[es] me [Lou] off.”[10]

Her mesmerizing beaded work vividly expresses her deep involvement with such vital issues of women’s works and people’s perceptions of them.

Lou’s Kitchen provides the visitors with questions that bring them back to the early 1990s when she was working on this piece, when feminists encouraged women to reconsider their roles, both inside and outside the home environment. The subject which Lou grapples with still resonates with us despite the great changes that have occurred in the status of working women over the course of recent history, as a result of second and third wave feminism. Today, women working in the fields of politics, art, culture, business, economics and others outside the home are more visible than they were before. Nancy Pelosi is one of the most visible examples. She currently stands in a position of power as the 52nd Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. She fights to work for the people, “to lower health care costs, increase workers’ pay through strong economic growth and rebuilding America, and clean up corruption for make Washington work for all.”[11] She told Lindy Boggs, a Louisiana congresswoman that “she worried she had too much power” and that she was thinking of giving some up.[12] She had so many titles in the California Democratic Party, including chairwoman. But would a man say the same? That is the question that Boggs raised in response to Pelosi’s statement. This narrow-minded but deeply rooted mindset about working women and women in power that is still seen, at least subliminally, throughout our societies is why powerful art works like The Kitchen remains so relevant to us today.

I, myself until lately could not escape from the stereotype that affects the minds of people at work. I went on a blind date set up by my parents. The man I met with was a properly brought up figure with decent education and manners. I had no reason to complain. An hour or so into the conversation, we were discussing each other’s future with regards to career. I told him about my work at the time, which was advertising. I told him how the work is interesting, and I told him how the process of developing and launching a campaign would work much more efficiently if certain things were different. I told him what I wanted to do and how I could try to change things, around the work environment with my coworkers, for the better. The conversation went well. Or I thought it did. I never heard back from him. Later I was told that he was overwhelmed by my enthusiasm and that I was way too driven about my career. It was the most ridiculous reason I had been rejected for but in the end, I was glad he never called back.

And this is where Lou’s idea of her work, The Kitchen, which repositions and re-values the work of domestic chores derives from. She places never-ending, unpaid domestic work at the same level as any other work that takes place outside the home by praising, celebrating, and commemorating it. She summarizes the intentions of her work through a poem by Emily Dickinson’s that is beaded on the side of the oven in The Kitchen:

She rose to his requirement.

Dropped the playthings in her life

To take the honorable work

Of woman and of wife

What seems to be more problematic today, which I’m sure Lou also acknowledges, is women’s sustained subconscious feeling that it’s wrong to have power, and people’s natural reaction when they see a woman passionate enough to put effort into bringing changes. Lou’s work is one of many attempts to block that flow of people’s subconscious.

Reference note:

[1] The Savannah College of Art and Design. “Liza Lou” Filmed [February 2012]. YouTube video, 03:15. Posted [February 2012]. https://youtu.be/67w6pVA_mrQ

[2] Ibid.

[3] Sarah Cascone, “‘My Whole Life Has Been Following This Single Material’: How Liza Lou’s Obsession With Beads Transformed a Village in Africa,” artnet News, September 11, 2018, https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/liza-lou-clouds-lehmann-maupin-1345115

[4] “Liza Lou,” artnet, accessed February 26, 2020, http://www.artnet.com/artists/liza-lou/)

[5] The Savannah College of Art and Design. “Liza Lou” Filmed [February 2012]. YouTube video, 03:15. Posted [February 2012]. https://youtu.be/67w6pVA_mrQ

[6] Ana Bogdan, “Liza Lou,” The Talks (The Talks, April 18, 2019), https://the-talks.com/interview/liza-lou/)

[7] Ibid.

[8] Anand, Tara. “A Brief Summary of The Third Wave of Feminism”. Feminism In India, 2018. https://feminisminindia.com/2018/04/27/brief-summary-third-wave-of-feminism/.

[9] Constance Grady, “The Waves of Feminism, and Why People Keep Fighting over Them, Explained,” Vox (Vox, July 20, 2018), https://www.vox.com/2018/3/20/16955588/feminism-waves-explained-first-second-third-fourth

[10] The Making of Liza Lou’s Kitchen, YouTube / The Making of Liza Lou’s Kitchen (The Whitney Museum of American Art, 2020), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rEZjQ0vZ12E

[11] “Full Biography,” Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, April 5, 2019, https://pelosi.house.gov/biography-0

[12] Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Nancy Pelosi, Icon of Female Power, Will Reclaim Role as Speaker and Seal a Place in History,” The New York Times (The New York Times, January 2, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/02/us/politics/nancy-pelosi-house-speaker.html

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Anne Bae

Anne Bae

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[Restart] Writing about things that inspire me in life. For anyone who enjoys exploring different topics and open to discovering new perspectives and ideas.