Easel at Killick River, Pangnirtung, Canada. All images courtesy of the artist.
Human survival within landscape’s mass is always in question, even more so presently due to accelerating environmental changes. Compelled by the pleasure and politics of working within this urgent scene, Mike Glier set out to record a quarter-turn around the earth by producing 50 abstract paintings of landscapes in particular moments in time. Along A Long Line is the title of Glier’s yearlong project that took the painter along a line of longitude beginning in the Arctic Circle, continuing through New York, and spanning down to San Cudo, Ecuador. The journey included an extended painting trip to St. John in the US Virgin Islands in a 14,000-acre area designated by the United Nations as part of the biosphere reserve network. The trip ended in May of 2008 in the Lower East Side and Financial District in New York City.
The following interview came out of my desire to talk with Glier about the oil paintings on aluminum panels that he brought back from his journeys on the “long line.” I have known his work since the early ’80s, work he says “was about masculinity and social injustice and the intersection of the two. Although the subject matter of my work then and my work now is very different, the two series are similar in that they are both improvisational.” At that time he was living in New York City and responding quickly to the countless media images that swirled around him. Now, he says, “I live in the country and I’m responding to the leaves on the trees.”
Glier has consistently made art with a strong political program, his new abstract landscape paintings involve a global awareness of the fragility and immensity of the beauty of his subject matter. Along A Long Line began as an exhibition—at the Williams College Museum of Art (where this interview took place), and at Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe and New York. Recently, the project has also become a book published by Hard Press editions, headlined by Glier’s blog entries. The blog, Alongalongline.com, was ongoing during his trip; he wrote about one story a week as he traveled and painted and took several thousand photos. Now, returned to his home and studio in Hoosick, New York, he is continuing his project of making abstract paintings about fraught and endangered landscapes.
Roberto Juarez Something I noticed about the interviews in the Along A Long Line catalogue is the lack of conversation about the work as painting as opposed to just a project.
Mike Glier That’s true, but both Lisa Corrin and Carol Diehl, the authors, love paint, so the oversight is unintentional. But it’s always easier to write about concept than perception. How do you explain red? Or express the satisfaction of a shapely negative space? Concepts live in words. Human perception lives in cells.
RJ It’s weird, I prepared for this by using books I was reading anyway. And in everything I was reading, like Jung’s Man and his Symbols, ideas about your paintings were coming up. But then I saw Avatar last night and it just kills ideas of unconsciousness and spirit and shadow. The writing is so shallow and obvious. Yet there are ideas about spirit and nature that are interesting. If you stretch this, you could look at your paintings this way, but I’d rather use Jung and John Ruskin to do so. I’ve know your paintings since 1981 when we were in a group show at Annina Nosei’s gallery. What’s happened between now and then to lead you to this project?
MG I’ve started painting more as a vehicle for personal expression and for social commentary. The first work was about white male power and identity as an able-bodied, Christian, white male—what that meant in 1980. I guess when I started out, my painting was seen as part of the neo-expressionist thing. I never liked that label because I just thought I was being physical, and that’s not necessarily the same as expressionist. It felt right to me to use my body in my art as well as my mind and politics. It was a way of trying to be integrated, not alienated from the self. As I got older, I thought that initial political position as expressed in art was a bit didactic, so I tried to embody ideas about masculinity rather than make commentary on them. I did a piece called The Alphabet of Lili about raising my daughter and creating an image of masculinity that was about nurturing as well as about being assertive. Ideas about how to be a man in the world have evolved, and this has something to do with the new work, Along A Long Line. It’s the man as adventurer idea—getting out there in the world, and again, having agency. But it’s also about having a very sensual response to the world. With these pictures I’m trying to touch the surfaces in as many ways as I can, from tickle and feather to knife and gouge, so there’s an extreme physicality to them. They try to have a voice and opinion, but also try to embody physical and sensual responses.
RJ That was a nice overview; it kind of brought back that era. (laughter)
MG Well, it was a feminist era, right? It felt like men had to make some sort of response other than a knee-jerk “No, no, no!”
RJ My reaction was always, “Yes, yes, yes!” I took up knitting.
MG But something I don’t think was said as clearly as it could have been is that feminism should be—and is, I think—a liberation doctrine for everyone. It’s about liberating people from expectations of who you are as a man or a woman and following an internal compass rather than being overly determined by social expectations of gender. It’s not articulated enough that there’s a liberating possibility for men within feminism. I wish the second generation of feminists—and men in general—had staked that position more clearly.
RJ I think Along A Long Line, which is both masculine and romantic, is a new version of what a man can be as a painter. How did you arrive at this project of making paintings along a global line of longitude?
MG I was sitting in my office at Williams College last year, looking out the window and thinking, “How far away from this chair can I possibly get?” (laughter) I thought, The Arctic Circle sounds good. It came from a desire to get out of my current life and do something different. But more interestingly, I was thinking about the perceptual stretch we’re asked to make as citizens of the world these days. We’re always being encouraged to protect our local environment, to maintain its uniqueness, but we’re also asked to think about the effect of our actions on a global scale. We’re constantly imagining the global while protecting the local. It’s a big perceptual stretch to have that kind of empathy and visual imagination, so I was trying to encompass this perceptual challenge of the 21st century. Hence the idea of making plein air paintings on a global scale.
November 21, 2007: Rainforest Canopy, San Cudo, Ecuador, 80ºF, 2007, oil on aluminum panel, 24 × 30 inches.
RJ What’s interesting is the subjective response to the land; there’s rarely a literal interpretation. There are some really detailed studies of trees in the room we’re in at the Williams College Museum of Art, where the show is currently hanging. I’m happy to be among my favorite group of paintings, the canopy paintings. Maybe it’s because of their humidity; the temperature is obviously warmer than in the Arctic paintings and the light is a little brighter. But there’s a play with negative and positive space. What seems to be positive could be negative—maybe a shadow—and it’s hard to understand. The abstraction seems somehow literal. Could you talk me through these paintings?
MG They’re done near Jatun Sacha, which is a primary bit of rainforest in Ecuador that’s managed by a Swiss and American foundation. I went there knowing I would have access, that someone would be speaking English, and that I would be able to manage an experience in the rainforest. But the rainforest was so hot and so humid; I had to invent a kind of headdress in order to be able to paint because there was so much water pouring down my face! I literally couldn’t see to paint. The rainforest was surprising. I had fantasies about it being brilliantly colored, but in fact it’s grey a lot in anticipation of the rain. The dominant colors are black-green and brown. There’s a lot of fog and mist, and so much water that the trees become a very dark green. There’s so much chlorophyll that the leaves get almost black and these giant leaves fall to the ground and turn chocolate brown. There’s the occasional brilliance of a flower but it’s usually some god-awful warning orange or too-brilliant red. I think for relief I started looking up through the canopy, seeing the positive and negative spaces the leaves form against the sky—that was magical. There are no seasons to limit growth, so it’s not unusual to see a six-foot leaf against the sky that makes great big shapes. When the sun streams through these leaves you get wonderful, brilliant yellows and oranges and greens. So one reason the canopy pictures might work is that there’s a sense of my relief about being able to look up and out and not be smothered by the density of detail on the floor of the rainforest; there’s something about the streaming light that seems redemptive, somewhat like how light streams behind a saint or Jesus in religious painting.
RJ There’s a digital stylization to how light is broken up. Talk to me about your language, your abstract language. Because it’s consistent. You have a way of—this is a word I got from Jung—“crystallizing” a picture by layering different kinds of techniques. As a painter I’m looking at this and thinking, A lesser painter couldn’t have carried this language off.
MG I made a repeated directional mark with squareish brushes of different sizes. It’s about touching the surface in as many ways as I can in a repeated way. Touch is a way to leave a trace of the body’s rhythm. So, when I start a particular brush stroke, I try to get into a rhythmic application of paint. This picture has a pretty rapid beat, a kind of staccato rhythm. It leaves a trace of a body in front of it working at a particular pace. You can imagine a hand keeping a beat and even a body swaying back and forth. It’s one of the things I always loved about Pollock; even without seeing the Hans Namuth photographs of him painting, you can imagine what his arm and body looked like as he was moving across his surfaces.
I’ve always been struck by that mid-20th-century phenomenon where artists started to perform in front of the picture, those traces of the performance of painting. That’s definitely in the rainforest pictures, but also in the others. I started using a knife and spatulas that build up impastos. You can put a big chunk of paint on with a knife. It brings the paint right to the surface and the paint starts to read as stuff in the good ol’ modernist way. The knife was a really good discovery for me because it allowed me to explore the physicality of paint, not just it’s ability to be descriptive and create the illusion of space.
July 9, 2007: Pink Granite, Pangnirtung, Canada, 45ºF, 2007, oil on aluminum panel, 24 × 30 inches.
RJ Let’s move on to the Arctic paintings. What initially struck me was the physicality of rocks and the craggy grey light. There’s one particular picture I always think of: Pink Granite. How do you pronounce that place in Canada?
MG Pangnirtung. (laughter)
RJ Pangnirtung, Canada. You painted this in situ. It’s almost like you’re watching the rocks as part of a ritual—natural or manmade—but something is going on with these loopy, yellow shapes that is very deliberate.
MG What was interesting about the Arctic was coming up with the palette—which is pretty grey with some very intense, cold aqua and then these funny reds and olive-y greens of the moss. But the center pictorial problem was discovering middle space and middle scale. There’s an incredibly detailed tundra with thousands of beautiful little plants with the diversity of the rainforest, it seems, but miniaturized. They’re just a couple inches off the ground. So you’re down on your knees looking at this beautiful tapestry or standing, seeing a vast rolling space. There’s an occasional boulder but no trees—you’re way above the tree line—no bushes, no buildings, nothing to interrupt your vision. So the yellow line you’re talking about is my eyes trying to locate something in middle space.
RJ In your painting, all of the relationships of the things you just described become fairly abstract. And ritualistic. That sapphire blue puddle under the largest stone centers me in this painting. I hate to sound so new agey, but there’s a Stonehenge-like significance to the rock.
MG I’m really delighted with your description because you’ve captured something of the profoundness of this primordial landscape. The narratives are very simple and very ancient. It’s about the distribution of water across a surface. (laughter)
RJ That’s good. I had something about water in my notes.
MG That’s what you’re seeing! The concave land captures water, and the land is so frozen that a lot of the vegetation turns black. In the spring, when water collects over the top of these black-bottomed pools, it turns this unbelievably dark sapphire. That color you’re seeing in the middle there is not an exaggeration.
RJ It’s playful, too. There’s this immensity, depth, darkness, and antiquity and at the same time you’re bouncing between the rocks with this light yellow. That’s where the artist comes into it. You’re responding to the landscape in a way only you could.
MG You’re talking about the joy in making the pictures. I hope that comes across, because if there is an environmental message in this work—and I hesitate even to go there—it is about feeling embedded in a landscape, not separate from it. I think one way that painting can help overcome a feeling of contemporary alienation is to take in the information from the landscape—color, motif, what the wind is like that day, what the temperature is like that day—and interpret it through one’s own filters like how you’re feeling, what your education is, sexuality, age. That’s one reason the paintings are abstract. I’m not trying to represent landscape in an “objective way.” The idea is to create a sense of unity with it. Since I started painting in the ’80’s, one of my personal projects is to not feel alienated. (laughter) Art has been a way for me to engage subjects, people, and landscape so that I feel involved in something.
RJ So the human presence is internal here, because it becomes rocks, water, or land. There are never human figures in these paintings. I notice a few animals, like some fish and a black lizard. You kept an excellent online diary (alongalongline.com) where people could follow your journey, and you talked a lot about the effect people had on your painting. Can you tell me about that choice to omit them?
MG When I started the project I was really concerned about making any sort of interpretation of human culture. I didn’t know the cultures well and I’m not an anthropologist. I was just very hesitant to include people because of my position as a visitor. I didn’t want to be construed as interpreting their lives in some superficial way. But maybe more importantly, I wanted to focus the project on landscape and be part of the global dialogue about people and land. And I think I wanted to give the idea of the land being indifferent to people; when people say, “We have to save nature,” I think that’s just the dumbest thing. Nature could care less about being saved. The issue is saving ourselves. Nature goes on, it doesn’t care about our success or failure. Maybe that’s the romantic part of this.
RJ Yeah, but there’s human presence—your presence. There are very realistic details in each of these paintings. I’m going now to a painting called Lichen at Killick River and it’s stunning partly because I understand it. You know what I mean? I’m drawn to what I understand first. I’m an abstract painter also, so that’s odd, but it’s what draws my eye first. This detail is like an event.
July 2, 2007: Lichen at Killick River, Pangnirtung, Canada, 48ºF, 2007, oil on aluminum panel, 24 Ö 30 inches.
MG It’s a little piece of lichen that has been blown up many times. The original piece of lichen is probably a quarter-inch long and it’s described here as 12 inches long. And it’s engaged with a waterfall. (laughter) So I’ve compressed a couple of experiences and changed the scales. I was standing by the Killick River, a beautiful glacier-fed stream that was in a crevice about 40 feet down from the surface of the land, sitting on a big rock and listening to the water roar. There’s some splashing of paint, and those ripped-up shapes of the lichens represent something of the sound and the energy of the space.
RJ My first reaction to seeing all these paintings together was to be overwhelmed by how many there are. I think you see it very much as documentation and because I’m a painter, I want to see them as paintings. I want to separate them so I can look at each individually, but you make that difficult.
MG I think it’s an error of hanging. (laughter) I really want them to be individual works and successful in their own right, but you’re right that I also wanted them to be documents. This is history painting! I feel that when I put ten together, they collectively make a bigger, more encompassing document.
RJ Well, it communicates a sense of overwhelmingness. But in reality, when you’re there and you’re facing this immensity, how do you choose the lichen? Or whichever detail? How do you get down to that level?
MG In the Arctic, I would take off in the morning with a 50-pound pack on my back and a fresh panel. I’d look for a place that was comfortable to work, like a big rock where I could put my supplies and someplace sheltered from the wind. So practicality sometimes determined what I was painting. And then I’d take a little walk, look for things of interest, pick up a lichen or some moss, find a vista or an outbreak of lichens and mosses on the rocks that was particularly beautiful. There was never any planning.
August 10, 2007: Mount Duval, Pangnirtung, Canada, 47ºF, 2007, oil on aluminum panel, 40 × 50 inches.
RJ The biggest painting in this group, Mount Duval, almost looks like a De Chirico. There is a sense of architecture, surrealism, movement, and mystery. In reality, how did you put this together?
MG I was standing in that crevice by the Killick River that I mentioned looking up at Mount Duval—the hulking black shape in the back of the picture—trying again to capture something of the flow of water over the land. Standing by the river there’s a waterfall in front of me, a waterfall behind me, and brilliant green glacier-water cascading toward me. Boulders are sprinkled across the mountainside like nuts on a sundae. I was trying to capture these chaotic rock forms, to abstract not only the shapes and the movement in the landscape, but the drainage of water through the landscape.
RJ I keep thinking of Turner’s landscapes, which we’ve actually looked at together in the British Museum. When you embarked on this, did you have a model?
MG No one in particular. As much as I was trying to just be me, Marsden Hartley would appear in the paint, or Georgia O’Keefe or Frederic Church. It was like all these artists from the past came in my luggage; they weren’t invited but they came along anyway. I think it feels like there are so many references to other artists because I’m so open to the outcome of each picture; I was not trying to develop a personal style, I was really trying to let each picture determine it’s own course. Hans Hoffman is here because I’m thinking about how color and scale create space. Pollock is here because I’m thinking about the materiality of paint and the action of my body. And then in terms of scale relations and the graphic quality, Stuart Davis appears. When I try to be open to all outcomes, many ghosts appear to make suggestions!
RJ You especially see Stuart Davis in the New York pictures. I think that’s a segue. The end of your journey was in New York City, the Lower East Side and also the Wall Street area. What drew you to downtown?
MG I wanted to paint the city just like it was landscape to suggest that it’s artificial to differentiate between landscape and urbanscape. It’s artificial to think of culture being outside of nature. I think cityscapes evolve with the same evolutionary principles as a landscape. What specifically took me down to the Wall Street area was the scale of the place, but also the recent history of 9/11. I got very interested in the palette of Wall St. and the palette of power, which is granite, brass, plate glass, marble, and then the American flag all over the place. But this very sober, grand, majestic palette is interrupted with warning orange, which is everywhere down there for of security reasons.
RJ We’re looking at April 27, 2008: Wall St.
April 27, 2008: Wall St, New York, New York, 59°F, 2007, oil on aluminum panel, 24 × 30 inches.
MG These little slivers are cut with a knife, again trying to emphasize a kind of agitation, or warning. Down there, a palette can actually tell a story about the stability of a place.
RJ So what began as plants, ice, water, becomes buildings and surfaces—towers of power, as you say. You also painted a garden in a community I know very well, the East Village. These aren’t the colors that you would see there, but it’s the feel of that little oasis in this neighborhood, which has actually become a little upscale these days. Can you talk about the Lower East Side experience?
MG The picture you’re talking about … it does almost seem French. It’s April 14, 2008: Seventh St. Garden. What are those trees that bloom all over New York in spring with the white blossom? A Bradford Pear, I think. They’re in bloom, and the forsythia was out so that’s what the bright yellows are. There’s a brilliant orangey-red at the bottom that was actually a terracotta color from some pots that were in the space. The sky was blue and there’s a lot of splashing in this picture to emphasize wind; I was trying to get a sense of cool spring breeze.
RJ It’s almost cubist how the sky is broken up into these blocks, inside of which you see clouds.
MG The hardest thing about New York was dealing with the grid after working with all these organic forms. How do you make an interesting picture with grid? That was a struggle, an interesting struggle. One of the great things about the project was how each new space created a whole new palette and set of motifs.
April 14, 2008: Seventh Street Garden, New York, New York, 65ºF, 2007, oil on aluminum panel, 24 × 30 inches.
RJ Another distinct motif the project encompassed is a book, which was actually a blog first. For me, seeing and reading the book and looking at the paintings is a totally different experience. Tell me about the book.
MG I had a few concepts I wanted the paintings to hold. There is, of course, the backstory of the trip along a line of longitude to suggest that the earth is shared space divided by scientific measure rather than geopolitcal boundaries. I also wanted to emphasize painting as a performance of human perception. But I got worried about asking the paintings to carry this conceptual content—I really wanted them to just be good paintings and not be too burdened with the concept. That’s when the book and the blog came into being. A book form gave me a place to articulate the conceptual part of the project and to record its performative aspect. So the stories, photographs, and paintings are collected to give a total sense of the yearlong project, and the paintings are free to be themselves, just individual works of art. I think the paintings and the book are separate works of art.
RJ So I think we’ve been everyplace but one: St. John. I’ve been to the Caribbean and I’ve painted there; the only way I could paint was to lock myself in a shed. To be outside is to be seduced by tropical sensuality. It just feels good. Your pores open. Your eyes don’t want to be critical, they don’t want to discern anything. They just want to go. Tell me how you met that challenge.
MG I made more pictures in the Caribbean than anywhere else just because my body was so happy. In most locations I made between 10 and 12. In the Caribbean, I came home with between 15 and 18. The motif there was undulation. Everything moves and waves: the water, the sea grapes, the clouds, the light … and people are drinking too much so they’re undulating as well. I tried to pick up on that. The palette here is really specific, a lot of turquoise and yellows and a few warm, coppery colors from fallen sea grape leaves on the beach. One picture that I think helps describe the process and the experience is January 14, 2008: Haulover Bay. It was done in response to the shadows of the sea grapes.
January 14, 2008: Haulover Bay, St. John, Virgin Islands, 75ºF, 2007, oil on aluminum panel, 24 × 30 inches.
RJ I love sea grapes. They’ve been motifs in many of my paintings.
MG Why do you like them?
RJ The shape. I like the fruit they have, the tree they come from, the way they dry.
MG Some plants just lend themselves to drawing because they make great positive/negative shapes. Sea grapes are like that. I was standing by the water getting ready to paint underneath some big sea grapes, admiring the shapes of morning light that the leaves had cut on the panel. You couldn’t ignore the patterns of light; they overwhelmed every shape I tried to make. So I let the light and the tree make the picture by drawing, and scraping out the contours they provided. These elongated, sort of figure-eight or paddle-like shapes are actually the shadow-shapes. It was a collaboration between the sun, the sea grapes, and the wind blowing the sea grapes around. There was no hesitation between the provocations of the light and my reaction with the brush and the knife; it was the most spiritual moment I’ll ever have. (laughter)
RJ What do you mean, you’ll ever have?
MG Well, I’m not a religious person, and I hesitate to use the word “spiritual.” But there was a moment when my response was so quick to forms created by the wind and the sun that there was a sense of being not separate from nature. There was a kind of simultaneity or unity; it was a fantastic feeling, a fantastic experience.
RJ It’s very physical, also. I mean, it looks like an Abstract Expressionist painting. Without your sea grape reference, I would not have caught that. Now that you mention it, I instantly see the color, but it’s one of the more abstract paintings of the group. It’s interesting to hear that it came from an experience of being one with a place.
MG A noun I’ve always been interested in is “ecstasy.” It’s such a great word, because it’s so complicated. It means pleasure but also pain. An ecstatic experience is very complicated. I always think of St. Theresa In Ecstasy, the Bernini sculpture where the little angel is pulling her cloak apart and about to pierce her heart with a spear. But she’s so happy; her tongue’s lolling out of her head! I like the idea of trying to create an ecstatic moment in a picture where there’s a balance of pleasure and pain, a radical openness to the world that’s at once ardent and vulnerable.