Elizabeth Boettger

Studio Show

Elizabeth Boettger makes photographs of light. She opens a camera lens anywhere from eight seconds to ten minutes and; within its range, “draws” in the air with penlights, highway flares, or a chemical mixture of her own concoction. The most impressive body of these photographs was taken in an alley in a Chicago slum. Garbage cans, telephone poles, newspaper piles, and brick façades are a dark, brutal, actual-life setting for her uncontained, scarlet-red light. It dances alongside graffiti-covered walls and blazes up and down the alley’s long black path. Boettger herself appears in several places in each photograph as a wonderful sort of ethereal blur, a sort of ghostly figure which is more and less “solid” depending on how long she stood still. Looking at the prints, this “figure” sometimes emerges as the source of a liquid light which spills out a dispersed mist or lightning bolt.

It is important to realize, however, that it is the mechanism of the camera which does the crucial job of fixing, or recording, the moving light and making it a single, simultaneous, spatial pattern; and that, on-site, the human eye can only partially sense the pattern or installation by a retinal after-image. Such photographic light drawings date back to the famous 1930s experiments by Nathan Lerner at Chicago’s Institute of Design, but Boettger puts hers in a banal “life” situation, bringing them to bear on performance and performance-documentation.

During the photographing, Boettger “performs,” walking, spinning, jumping, and running with light. She calculates her stops and starts, ups and downs, overs and unders, curves and lines, to interrelate with the specific rooftop, beach, alley, riverbank, cornfield, house, or art gallery in a geometric or an ethereal way. All of this makes interesting “process” viewing, but for the most part, it happens too fast to be meaningful esthetically. For example, inside the Walter Kelly Gallery, she speedily “drew” repetitive light marks and moved so fast that even the camera could not record her. And yet, the final photographs did show a curious, arched bevy of Oriental-ish sparks entering the room from around a corner, floating ungrounded through the space, and gradually lowering to the floor. Viewing the photo, one is left to wonder which is real—the light sparks, the carpet, the wall, the empty space? Significantly, all of her photos are “shot straight”; they are not secondary source documentation; they are the work of art.

But this does not divide Boettger from performance sensibility. Consider her Line Maintenance, or How to Deal with Those Unruly Spirals, with assistant James Shannon—a weird sort of spontaneous, interactive performance which is simultaneously edited for later consumption by the open camera lens. This is the action: with amazing speed, Boettger draws spirals in the air with a bright pen light; Shannon perceives their unexpected contortions and movements only by watching Boettger’s fast hand and the light’s lingering after-image; impulsively, he seizes upon ways to deal with this “spiral” by using a handy, nearby two-by-four. But the camera sees: a “breathing” human figure with a two-by-four (Shannon) interacting both with empty space (Boettger) and an animated cartoon line (spiral)—a Disneyish anticlimax in comparison with the implications of the whole idea. The “spiral” may be interpreted as an open, ongoing, capricious light configuration symbolic of Boettger’s personality; the “performance” as a control-response situation between artist and half-clad male assistant; and the photograph as an image of an active human figure who is there but cannot be seen.

C. L. Morrison