Beaded and bedazzling

Artist liza lou isn't a housewife, but she has spent plenty of time in the "Kitchen."

That fact is immediately, overwhelmingly apparent in her life-size installation, where every surface - from refrigerator to floor covering, even dust balls in the dust pan and a cherry pie, just out of the oven - is covered in glass beads, 10 million beads in all.

Lou describes it as a tribute to women's domestic labor. Working alone and selling individual pieces to make a living, Lou completed the installation in 1995, after five years of work. "Kitchen," along with "Back Yard," is on view through Feb. 21 in "Liza Lou's America," an exhibition at the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach, Fla.

It was while placing the dishes in the sink in "Kitchen," and looking out one of its three windows, that she got the idea for a companion piece. The 528-square-foot "Back Yard" - with its bead-covered picnic table and Dagwood-sized sandwiches, lawn mower, clothesline, flowers, and pink flamingos - took two years and 20 million beads to complete. She had a little help on this project, though. The quarter of a million blades of grass were made out of beads and wire by hundreds of volunteers in a series of "lawn parties" at the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

"The 'Back Yard,' for me, is really the symbol of American leisure, of what it means in our culture to have a patch of grass of your own," Lou said in a recent phone interview from her Los Angeles home. "You have this perfect kitchen where the dishes are permanently sparkling. Shouldn't the grass outside be perfect, too?"

Lou aspired early on to become an artist after seeing the work of American sculptor George Segal. A child of the suburbs, she traveled to Florence in 1988 to study painting.

"After having seen all these monuments and cathedrals, I thought about where I'm from. How can I make a shrine out of what my life is? I have friends in Italy who were raised looking at the Duomo. What if you were raised looking at 7-Eleven and Jiffy Lube? How do you make something out of that?"

SHE returned home, enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute, and discovered her medium one day when she wandered into a bead store. Her enthusiasm for beads as a material, however, wasn't shared by her peers or teachers. In fact, so harsh was the criticism of her work - what she calls "three-dimensional painting" - that she left school to pursue her own projects.

"I'm trying to tap into what collectively I think a lot of American's are obsessed with, to tap into that dream or fantasy and make it visually have form."

She is modest about the staggering number of hours required to bring her works to fruition and hopes that audiences get past what she calls the "Wow! factor." "I think I get undue credit for all the work I do. For me it's not so much the technique, its the idea behind it."

Last fall, Lou completed "Closet," her newest installation, and recently returned from Italy, where she was preparing for her next piece: a huge, portable chapel.

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