New York

Mike Glier

In these two exhibitions that coincided briefly, Mike Glier engaged two traditional subjects of art, the landscape and the human face. He makes a particularly strong case now, as he has with his earlier work, that figurative, representational art can be endowed with intensely challenging, disturbing content.

At Barbara Gladstone, the artist showed a series of 31 small charcoal drawings of human faces. Entitled “Satisfaction,” 1989, they are part of a book of portraits in which each subject offers his own description of satisfaction. The subjects encompass a wide range of ages, facial structures, and racial background. All of the faces are tipped back slightly and fully fi ll the modest frame. Surprisingly, the eyes of all the faces are closed. The position that each subject assumes suggests enormous contentedness, as well as a disquieting vulnerability; the closed eyes, the exposed neck , the open faces could be awaiting a warm caress or a cruel catastrophe. In particular, the closed eyes convey unconsciousness and, in some cases, the uneasiness of a required pose.

The eye has traditionally been viewed as the symbol of, or view to, the human spirit, and it comes as a shock that Glier obscures this telling feature. Questions of personality, identity, and character must be sought elsewhere—in the lines and textures, the wear of li fe, on each face. The viewers’ encounter with the physiognomy of the face is intensified without the easy, almost rhetorical sight of the eye. The site and source of satisfaction requires a more demanding speculation. The rigorous modesty of the drawings’ dimensions and the virtuosity of their execution suggest a faithfulness to a more traditional notion of the figure, but the tense composition, the sleeplike state of these figures , turns faith into doubt. Only the final drawing of a sleeping baby, its lips parted slightly, implies an idea of satisfaction that can be experienced with some certitude.

Glier’s group of five landscape drawings (Green, 1989) is installed in one of the elegant galleries at Wave Hill that once served as a family dining room. Framed by architectural mouldings and views of the Palisades and Hudson River to the west, the drawings include depictions of plant species that the artist found on the Wave simply faithful botanical studies, but extraordinary inventions, with plants of distended scale and menacing proportions all depicted as part of deep, evocative landscapes. Many of the architectural details in this 19th-century interior includes carefully executed plant imagery. They serve as a subtle foil to the artist’s restless, almost threatening compositions.

On a wall section over the elaborate fireplace, muscular irises cling to a butte of unusual scale; the thick, tubular roots swell above the ground plane. The plants seem to be the sole living thing around, but they appear invincible. In a more surprising, surreal passage on the other side of the room, a wandering river and radiant waterfall confront a dark night sky. A full moon illuminates highlights on the water, but the shining celestial globe is partially eclipsed by a mysterious flying plant form, with roots stretched out behind by the force of its movement. If there is a tenacity in the sturdy independence of the irises, this panel is full of foreboding—of nature’s undivinable qualities, its potential for cruel destruction, its strange regenerative and occasionally mutant manifestations.

Seeing this work at the edge of the Hudson River is a reminder of this country’s most abiding landscape legacy. It also speaks of nature’s promise and menace. The devastation wrought by nature is intensified and urgent; the struggle of human will and natural phenomena has reached a shrill crescendo. Glier’s pastoralism is about this uncertain destiny.

Patricia C. Phillips