Liz Liguori: Light of Hand @La MaMa Galleria

JTF (just the facts): A total of 50 black and white photographs, framed in silver/unframed, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the entry area. The show was curated by Elæ Moss.

The show includes the following works/displays:

  • 22 gelatin silver prints (some with chromoskedasic sabbatier), 2019, 2020, 2021, sized 12×12, 30×40, 42×72, 42×84, 72×84, 84×92, 96×84 inches (or the reverse), unique
  • 1 salon wall installation of 28 smaller gelatin silver prints, no additional information provided
  • 3 vitrines on sawhorses with assorted prisms and optical tools
  • 1 mirrored installation room, with black-and-white video projection (5 minutes 3 seconds)
  • 2 process/interview videos (displayed on screens), 2022, color, 4 minutes 6 seconds, 6 minutes 31 seconds

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Twenty-first century photography has become so thoroughly digital and computational that consciously returning to the original idea of “drawing with light” (from the etymology of the word photography itself) feels almost actively contrarian. In a world where photographs are now automatically corrected, sharpened, and improved to the point of perfected unreality, perhaps a turn back to darkroom-based, hand-crafted, chance-upended experimentation is an entirely predictable reaction – when controlling forces become stifling, we have the natural human urge to break those bonds and deliberately let some chaos back in.

Across the history of the medium, “drawing with light” has meant many different things. The early photograms of William Henry Fox Talbot and Anna Atkins introduced the idea of making camera-less images, where objects placed on light sensitive paper were then illuminated with sunlight, creating silhouetted reversals of light and dark. From there, darkroom-based photograms have gone in a range of experimental directions, from Surreal and Modernist still life arrangements to more expressive abstractions made entirely from the combination of light and chemical washes, and then on into the realms of additive color. More literal drawing with light using a camera has been accomplished with various ingenious light sources (and long or multiple exposures): the sun and moon, candles, flashlights/light bulbs (memorably in Gjon Mili’s gestural images of Picasso), neon signage, and even car headlights.

Liz Liguori’s recent contributions to this storied subgenre of photography history are rooted in a unique perspective – she didn’t actually start with photography, but with light itself. Her artistic arc began in New York’s nightclubs in the mid 2000s, where she was a performative light artist, providing visuals to accompany the music. The unlikely combination of a simple green laser pointer and a cheap glass prism provided a creative spark, and soon she installed a tray filled with prisms atop her light board and “played” them with lasers during her shows. Her success as a light artist then led to another serendipitous artistic turn – a 2011 collaboration with the painter Jessie Mann (Sally Mann’s daughter), where Liguori applied her evolving techniques to the expressive intersection of painting, light, and photography. In the decade since, Liguori’s photographic light experiments have become increasingly sophisticated, culminating in the works on view in this current show.

Liguori calls her works “electromagnetograms”, combining the technical terminology of her approach with the common “gram” nomenclature of experimental photographic processes. At its core, Liguori’s thinking in these works is scientifically similar to that used by Berenice Abbott in the 1950s, when she was documenting the elemental properties of light for MIT. What’s different is that while Abbott was deliberately paring down to the very simplest of light forms (as visual proof of specific theories or behaviors), Liguori has pushed to the opposite extreme, using the complex properties of light as an improvisationally expressive artistic tool. In this way, her works consciously leverage the principles of hard science, but lean actively towards the aesthetics of photographic Abstract Expressionism, as seen in the light experiments of Henry Holmes Smith and Harry Callahan. Gianfranco Chiavacci’s spinning light studies from the 1970s provide a somewhat more recent example of the scientific properties of light being harnessed for the open-ended exploration of abstraction.

Liguori’s compositions are driven by the unique vocabulary of mark making that is derived from her light experiments – in its native form, light doesn’t look like a painted brushstroke, or a pencil line, or a charcoal smudge. In her largest works – some that cover an entire wall – she fans the light out into wispy veils composed of wave-like textures vaguely reminiscent of shimmery fabric. Like tents or tarps staked down at a few key points, her dark shapes seem pulled taut, with arcing edges that swoop through indefinite white space. When these shapes are layered atop one another, Liguori creates a sense of implied motion, like the repeated flapping of wings, the noisy fluttering of flags, or the turbulent breath of the wind.

While the scale of the large pictures feels impressively muscular and expansive, Liguori’s medium size (40×30 inches or so) feels like the natural scale for amplifying and perfecting her visual discoveries – plenty big enough to draw us into their intricacies, but not so big as to become physically unwieldy in the darkroom. A pass through the gallery provides a parade of intriguing compositional possibilities: light that squiggles and jitters with frenzied urgency; light that is chopped into tiny fragments like gene sequences; light that bends into dark boomerangs; light that is diffused into flat (and rumpled) fields, like linen bedsheets; light that becomes fogged and shadowy, connected by thin mathematical tendrils; light that gets split into slices and shutters, with gridded diffractions and spotted patterning; and light that has scalloped edges, like clouds or crumpled tissue paper. Along the way, Liguori also introduces various chemical washes, drips, and watery gestural residues, which further complicate the compositions and introduce another layer of directed chance to the proceedings.

Liguori’s smallest works, particularly as seen here in a thicket of pictures hung salon style, are where the tinkering trial and error of her process is most visible. In playing with the properties of light, each “error” isn’t actually a mistake, but a piece of new information and potentially a bridge to somewhere she hasn’t been before. In her small works, she’s testing angles, layering unlike textures, using chemicals to amplify the visibility to subtle markings, gestures, and echoes, pushing ideas to extremes, and deliberately trying to “break” things. It’s a “fail fast”, Silicon Valley style of art making, where learnings come from risks taken, which are then fed back into the next experiment. Clustering them together into one artistic bunch highlights the power of this idea generation mechanism, with each visual outcome backed by a process that can then be tweaked, iterated, and pushed forward. The fact that these trials are often messy is part of the point; she’s got to encourage the light to become unruly, expressive, and personal, rather than simply elegantly mathematical.

Given Liguori’s history of thinking about light as a performative tool, it makes sense that she might also be experimenting with more immersive versions of her compositions, particularly given the phenomenon of the Kusama- or TeamLab-style, Instagram-able artistic experience. In “Light Movements”, Liguori has constructed an intimately-scaled mirrored room that mimics the appearance of a five-sided prism; inside, black-and-white light effects are played across the structure, creating shifting kaleidoscopic patterns across the floor and walls. As an experience, it faithfully replicates what it might feel like to be inside one of her compositions, and smartly incorporates elements of time and evolution. And as an extension of the aesthetic themes in this show, it feels authentic.

This show feels intentionally designed to be a sprawling sampler, and it succeeds in showing us the effusive breadth of Liguori’s ideas. That said, she’s most successful when she tightens down to theme and variation exercises, as she has with the largest “Iridized Diamond Cut” works – once inside a certain set of constraints, we can see her trying out combinations and compositional variants, tuning and retuning within a defined world of light gestures, in search of that elusive moment when lightning strikes. Not every experimental pathway deserves such methodical exploration, but the most promising (or perhaps riskiest) ones certainly do, and showing us more of that clear intention might make things more resonant. As seen here, we get Liguori as exuberantly raw; I’m guessing there is also Liguori as restlessly precise and uncompromising, with even more of herself at stake in the abstractions. While there are many engaging endpoints on view here, that’s the artist I want to see next.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $285 to $22200, generally based on size. Liguori’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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