A Pre-Raphaelite head, its expression dreamy, emerges from the bowed surface of turquoise waters in Elizabeth Glaessner’s “Blue Recluse” (2021). This apparent placidity belies monstrous physical and psychic depths: the bulk of the painting is given over to the figure’s sweeping, submerged, arthropodal body, its outstretched arms and four bent legs springing from a slim thorax to push menacingly against the bounds of the frame, bones scattered beneath its scuttling feet. Glowing a disconcertingly seductive Cherenkov blue, the arachnid-human hybrid conjures up a femme fatale at once mythic and post-apocalyptic, albeit one that reads ambiguously on the matrices of sex and gender, not to mention the taxonomies of species and ecologies.
This Arachne-esque character is in good company: the oneiric paintings in Glaessner’s solo show at P P O W are populated by a wonderfully weird menagerie of sentinel-like sphinxes, hazy mirages, eldritch doppelgängers, posing nymphs, and even a horse that, like an inverted centaur, has a ghostly human foot (“Mechanical Horse,” 2022). The exhibition’s evocative title, Phantom Tail, refers to the vestigial “tail” with which the artist was born. Approaching her relationship with this lost appendage slantwise, Glaessner explores chimerical, hybridized, shapeshifting, or otherwise non-normative bodies and archetypes that come to us — in a glitchy, protean form — through the endless retellings of myths. Integrating this conceptual fluidity into her work on a material level, the artist skillfully paints in oils directly onto poured color. Forms gently seep into their surroundings or one another, giving rise to unexpected enmeshments: a thin, green vegetative wash that lends a nude a corpse-like air, or a neon orange underpainting that makes blue figures smolder like embers.
As she visually augments the metamorphic or scrambled qualities inherent to many mythic creatures — perhaps most pithily in “Sphinx at Night” (2022), in which an inscrutable sphinx is a corporeal riddle that seems to turn away from and toward the viewer at the same time — Glaessner adds her own spins and embellishments to the tales on which she draws. In the Greek myth of Galatea (also painted by French Symbolist Odilon Redon, with whom Glaessner shares a predilection for monsters, myths, and colorful sfumato), the nereid falls in love with a shepherd, who is promptly squashed under a boulder by a hulking Cyclops, the latter in love with Galatea himself. The nymph proceeds to transubstantiate her dead lover’s blood into a commemorative river, allowing his passing to serve as a substrate for new life.
In Glaessner’s rendering, “Galatea on Stilts” (2022), the giant grasps Galatea possessively. Perched atop luminous stilts, a bodily prosthetic with which one of her legs fluidly merges, the nereid nears the giant’s height. This parity destabilizes the myth’s established hierarchies, while the bodies and forms in different sizes reflect one another, creating the sense of a mis en abyme: a figure, perhaps the shepherd, is a fraction of Galatea’s size, and the tree trunks in the background could well be a bigger Galatea’s enormous stilts.
This sort of iterative or recursive thinking — the notion of stories, bodies, and selves that change incrementally and radically as they repeat — pervades the mesmerizing world of Phantom Tail. “Strange Loop” (2021) depicts a lucent nude figure, modeled in pale greens and purples, sprawled in a meadow. Progressively smaller versions of the nude, each with slight aberrations, lie recumbent against each other’s diminutive, obfuscated crotches. The painting takes its title from cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter’s theory of consciousness, which proposes that “we are self-perceiving, self-inventing, locked-in miracles are little miracles of self-reference” — that our selves are shifting, interpenetrating phenomena with no Fixed origin or destination, loosely held together by patterns of symbols. This remarkable painting and the notion of selfhood undergirding it could be the show’s manifesto.
Elizabeth Glaessner: Phantom Tail Continues at P P O W (392 Broadway, Tribeca, Manhattan) through March 19. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.