Liza Lou Kitchen Artwork

Third Wave Feminism and Liza Lou’s Masterwork – Kitchen

How third-wave feminism influenced and gave way to art installations like Kitchen.

So, what is third-wave feminism, and what impact did it have on art? Think Gen X, riot grrrl, and Sleater Kinney. The inception of third-wave feminism began in 1991 with the Anita Hill hearings and sought to redefine words and ideas around gender and womanhood. The artwork that was born out of this time would change society’s perception of “female artists” and the content they created.

Second-wave feminism and the ’60s saw artists like Lynda Benglis utilize physicality and space. Benglis used space and volume to take up room that had not historically been given to female artists. The work was big, bold, amorphous. Benglis was abstracting and melting down the traditional form, softening the materials’ perception, and upending the traditional roles they served. She used our perception of the materials function to weave together a narrative that subverted our prescribed definition.

Other second-wave feminist artists like Judy Chicago and her infamous dinner table used a more definitive narrative approach. Chicago created 39 elaborate place settings arranged along a triangular table for 39 mythical and historical famous women. Each place setting for the 39 figures included unique china, cutlery, and embroidered napkins. Although differing in style, both artists embodied the fight against gendered roles through the creation of their artworks.

Identity politics and relational aesthetics

Third-wave feminism hit at the beginning of ’90s and focused on identity politics and relational aesthetics. The art critic, Nicolas Bourriaud, coined the term relational aesthetics to explain artwork that implicates the audience in a participatory fashion.

So, what is relational aesthetics? Relational aesthetics is akin to breaking the fourth wall in film or television. It’s a way for fine artists to engage the public in the process. Relational aesthetics took the thesis of movements like conceptual art and Allan Kaprow’s, Happenings to extrapolate on the role of artwork in any given space.

Nicolas Bourriaud questioned the idea that we could interpret artwork alone without considering the context of its space, objects, and people in it. He argued that the imbued meaning within materials had too much collective history to separate material from meaning. Lou’s Kitchen is an example of using the historical implications of space (the Kitchen) and the material (beads) to tell a more remarkable story beyond its surface’s confines.

Artists using labor to tell a story

Kitchen sink by Liza Lou
Detail of the sink from “Kitchen”. Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. © Liza Lou, courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London. Photo by Tom Powell.

At first glance Lynda Benglis and Liza Lou seem like two artists on the opposite end of the art spectrum. Benglis’ work is physical; Lou’s is tedious. However, at their core, both artists use materials and labor to tell a story about perception. Process-based artwork, like Kitchen, is about unsung labor. It’s about the labor of time, cleaning, baking, and it’s continuous cycle. It’s about women’s labor and accounting for that time. The time it takes to clean. The time it takes to bake.

The materiality of Lou’s artwork is impossible to separate from the core message. Any artist working outside of the traditional set of mediums is immediately tied to that material’s implications. Pulling from the craft implications of beadwork and the American Kitchen’s historical implications, we have a perfect materials-driven conversation about labor and womanhood in Kitchen

When Lou began, Kitchen, at just 20 years old, she initially conceived that it would take her a few months (It took five years). As she put it in an artist talk, “I’ve never been very mathy.” From afar, you can see how you might underestimate the volume of time. At a 168 square feet, the scale of the work isn’t that overwhelming – until you get close and understand the materiality. Every square inch of the installation is covered in tiny glass beads. 30 million glass beads. Each bead, individually placed by hand with tweezers.

The Kitchen was birthed in a period of art that denigrated color and glitz as tasteless, and work that utilized these components couldn’t be “serious art.” Lou disregarded these comments. She believed if people were questioning whether or not it was art – then it absolutely must be. Lou dropped out of art school, worked odd jobs as a waitress and dressmaker while working on her artwork at night in her apartment. After several moves and lost security deposits from globs of glue stained countertops, Lou finished Kitchen.

Detail from "Kitchen" by Liza Lou
Detail from “Kitchen”. Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. © Liza Lou, courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London. Photo by Tom Powell.

When asked about the underpinnings of Kitchen in interviews, Lou answers in the form of literature and poetry. Poetry and literature are essential to Lou’s practice. Remnants of Emily Dickinson’s work can be seen in Kitchen in the form of cursive beadwork. At a lecture at the Anderson Ranch, Lou references a Kay Ryan Poem; We’re Building a Ship as We Sail It, to explain her work’s undercurrents, Kitchen.

The first fear

being drowning, the

ship’s first shape

was a raft, which

was hard to unflatten

after that didn’t

happen. It’s awkward

to have to do one’s

planning in extremis

in the early years —

so hard to hide later:

sleekening the hull,

making things

more gracious.

Kitchen” is currently on view at The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City through January 2021.

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