What We’ve Been Missing: Our Phantom Tails and the Liberating Meadows of Spring
On Elizabeth Glaessner’s recent solo show and the changing of the seasons.
By Julie Kim
Living through the dawn of springtime in New York City, I’ve been reflecting on what a change of season brings for New Yorkers. I went to view Phantom Tail, a solo show by Palo Alto-born Elizabeth Glaessner, at PPOW Gallery.
Her colorful paintings are about reconnecting with the natural world and where our physical bodies have come from, featuring human-resembling beings inspired by myths and the history of our changing bodies in the grand schema of time: “A world unmoored by virtue or vice,” according to the press release.
Installation view from PPOW
In short, she holds up a mirror that reflects our primal instincts, yearnings, and unabashed, unafflicted, authentic selves for a world that has collectively lost all of the above.
I’ve felt myself grow stale this winter, everything perceivably human about me turning grey-scale, no longer recognizing tremors of vivacity or small kicks of feeling that make me feel alive. I was also reflecting on the brittle atmosphere and the stream of banal matter that the city turns into this time of year.
March 6th was a Sunday and an anomaly from the sweep of cold and sterility. It gave us unexpected sunshine and warmth. That afternoon, I left my apartment and walked to Riverside Park. I don’t know what exactly I was expecting, but I thought I should spend the first teaser/premiere of springtime outdoors. I entered the park through 83rd Street, then took a route I had never taken before in an attempt to meet the Hudson River walkway. I passed through a fenced-off courtyard filled with bags of trash, walked through a dark tunnel, and finally came upon the river.
It was like all of New York had slipped out from their homes to rendezvous under the sun. There was no frost, none of the usual withdrawn solitude. Only beautiful repose and serenity.
I made my way to the row of swing sets under the bridge by the 60s and situated myself between children being pushed by their parents. I sat swinging for a really long time, watching walkers and runners and bikers, the river, the couples holding hands whilst walking their handsome dogs, and the empty blue sky rippling away in the breeze with just the right amount of force. I stopped swinging to give up my seat for a family of three kids and walked back across the bike path under the bridge and towards the pier, where people sat on benches watching the water.
Collective awe, like when strangers watch an eclipse or laugh at the same scene in a theater or mourn together at a funeral, always surprises me in New York. That day, an extra dosage of sunshine made it happen. Everybody on that pier sat watching the water with unspoken but explicitly present tenderness. Winter can be sweet, but it’s also cruel and brings spirits to their knees. Every time I live through these months, I wonder if my time with the city has simply come to an end and if I should move some place else to find my morale again. I knew the rest of the world had been feeling it too.
People leaned against the railing, staring off into the water and into the horizon that was layered with blazing sunlight. A man with sunglasses rested on the railing at the corner of the pier, the point furthest out onto the water and closest to the horizon. I was going to take his spot after he left. I watched the people sitting on the bench. A woman with headphones on closed her eyes, sitting still, letting the light and the breeze take her away. I opened my Notes app to write this down. It’s still an image I cannot forget.
I made my way to take the spot of the man with the sunglasses who had just left and stared into the water. The light reflecting on the lapsing waves looked like angels slipping underneath the river, swimming westward, out as far as the horizon went. I remember thinking, this is what New Yorkers needed. Or maybe toughing it out is what allows for tender moments to arise.
I walked into Phantom Tail anticipating investigating of what primordial sensations Glaessner believes we should embrace, and also figuring out how she so successfully paints her seamlessly gradient arrays of color.
The first piece greeting viewers was a smaller-scale work. There’s something about the faces that are so youthful yet so wise beyond their years.
A walkway led into the main exhibition room of all of her large-scale paintings.
I immediately noted down: traces. She leaves trails of quiet deliberation using thin brushstrokes atop the backdrops of melting colors. A serene, slow buildup of auras, breathing spaces, and colors contain seconds of arising thoughts, instincts, and moods.
There is such intense saturation, like chalk pastels that are ground into paper with vigorous force. Upon close inspection, I noticed the imprints that brush hairs made as they skidded across the surface, packing in all of the pigments of the colors. Dry brush sweeps dissipated harsh edges, creating the one-of-a-kind, unfathomable, liquid-like textures present in every Glaessner painting. At close range, the surfaces are not glassy and silken at all––the paint looks rather dryly pasted and swept onto the canvas (an integral part of her process is pouring oils on top of pigments), unexpectedly creating the jello-like, seamless transitions of ombre colors from far away. Neon oranges shine from behind deep turquoises and blues. There is an unashamed mixing of complementary colors into murky browns; they meet at the borderline and create pockets for the pure and vibrant colors to live in. I also observed how wet and thinned down the paint is for her detail marks, almost leaving the touch of watercolor. Faces are glazed into islands of color. Eyes, noses, and lips are stained into the atmosphere with a gentle dragging of paint. They are rendered with only subtle contours and shadows.
As I observe “Strange Loops,” I wonder: how did she think to put down lavender in a scene of greenery? The largest figure sprawls on top of an emerald green pasture with a face of shock. A chain of increasingly smaller figures also change their facial expressions, each one carrying a display of unkept darkness more devilish than its predecessor, until the last figure, finally, displays a blatant frown.
On a wall in the back room, a row of three small-scale works hangs.
These have more coarse, ragged brushstrokes, plagued with an urgency of some sort that her large scale paintings miss. The middle piece, “Sphinx at Night,” strikes me first. A figure in orange glows against an indigo night, where the indigo struggles to contain itself against the contours of the orange figure, which seems to have been painted first, as an under-layer. I muse over how exciting and beautiful her usage of “non-traditional” colors, like turquoise and lilac, is.
The piece to its left, Hourglass, is exactly that––a beautiful lilac and turquoise canvas. A burnt sienna hourglass is painted brutishly but confidently in one fell, chunky swoop, by the figure within the painting holding a brush. The hourglass tells of passing hours, and here, time is suggested as… almost nonsensical. I feel like I am invited to step into an imaginary world for a while, outside of the universal looping of time that supposedly goes on without our existence.
The last piece that caught my attention was “Repeater.”
The largest figure carries its smaller duplicate with both hands. The smaller doppelgänger then holds another smaller one, creating a chain of bodies holding identical bodies of their own, decreasing in size. I immediately think about humans carrying the weight of different parts of ourselves: dead desires, distraught and fatigued versions of us, the small and fragile parts we tend to. The parts that we have to live with nevertheless.
The elements in each painting seep into and wash over each other, transforming into the other. They fuse to comprise the arresting glow of a fantastical world that is soupy, sticky, and like being underwater. The new troposphere Glaessner creates in each painting is a breathing, living ball of energy itself. It is a place we can go to wander, play, and rest with no tomorrow––if we had the time, and if such a thing as tomorrow were no longer real. The figures soak in the light with no sense of time. Only color exists in these worlds, imbuing them solely with moods; not time of day, nor season.
The figures are naked and fully aware of perception through eye contact with us, but at peace. And they, like us, are tangled up in the many parts of themselves, wandering and resting without time, in a frozen but lively vacuum of color. Often, when I wish time would stop so that I could take a break from the continuum of life, I want to transcend into a vacuum precisely like this. Still alive, still breathing, and still living, but entirely away from this time and space we live and work in.
I, like every inhabitant of this city, would perhaps like to come live in Glaessner’s paintings. To live timeless and reasonless, only in touch with our most pure, primal selves, is what Glaessner seemed to be offering. We miss spring and warm sunlight when winter is upon us, and we soak in the sunlight when it comes around, wanting to abandon all our responsibilities. We wish to be liberated, just like we feel liberated when we lie in green pastures and sit next to the water.
I saw myself in these paintings, and I saw New Yorkers, with their stylish yet authentic promiscuity. Shameless and naked chaos. Standing their ground, acutely self-aware but absolutely untroubled. Their skin is like glass at first glance, prone to shatter at any moment, but so firmly melded into their habitats. And there’s a wisdom within them—like they’ve been floating in this milieu forever.
Perhaps only after we’re jaded can we truly inhale the feeling of being awakened to new life in springtime.