Essay

EssayAt the center of Pan Glick’s painting John Hardy, a huge horse rears, opening a fissure in the fields. The horse is clearly fantastical, for his proportions are off-his forelegs are, for example, far too long-and exaggerated sinews slide over him like terrestrial plates. There’s a tiny man taming him. He’s hanging onto the horse’s reigns, performing a task that is the stuff of tall tales. To the right, naked figures riding other, more docile horses bareback bear witness, and sheep graze in the distance. Glick here postulates the foundations of quotidian life, imagining heroic events as preliminary to the establishment of culture. Her artifice in rendering the horse is analogous to the feat of the horse tamer, the viewer placed in the same relation to her handiwork as the bareback riders are to the central event.

Glick is not alone in contemporary artists in exploring such mythical terrain. But hers is a particularly American voice-in her devotion to nature and indigenous music, in a painterly work ethic and faith in its rewards, she is rooted in her native soil. Glick’s themes, often announced in her titles, are taken from blues, folk, and gospel songs. She admires both early American modernists like Hartley and Dove, and the imagery of non-academic artists, such as Eunice Bourne, whose embroidery is the basis for her Fishing Lady. Often, however, Glick’s paintings are less the product of a specific borrowed narrative than of fantasy and dreams. Gesture and scale are distorted and colors are selectively charged to convey the impact of tales and lyrics rather than their specific narratives. An old photograph from a family album (I Live in the Past) of of the American West (Ingot) becomes the source of a painterly reverie in which the past speaks less by direct influence than through the resonant accidents of visual literacy.

A strong man, balancing himself with a wood post, walks on a fence. We see him from behind and below in Working On A Building. He bisects the picture, to his left and right cultivated fields, one just planted, the other with full-grown corn. This landscape recalls Arthur Dove’s Fields of Grain as Seen from Train (1931), a painting in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo (Glick’s home town), or 1930s Regionalism. Glick’s work exudes that early modernist optimism. Her tendency is, like Hartley, to tip up the picture plane, piling and distributing elements so that a kind of display is formulated. In front of the fields in Working On A Building are two lively dalmatians, bright and incongruous. And below the man, under the fence, grow brilliantly-colored flowers, not wildflowers but garden flowers. The flowers are a frontal for the stage of the narrative-not unlike the cliffs below the Good Sheppard in the Early Christian tomb of Galla Placidia in Ravenna. This is sacred ground, like the Good Sheppard’s. We don’t see the man’s face, and he is bent over from exertion, which begins to resemble an act of faith. The superabundance of the earth and the apparition-like dogs seem to offer proof of an eventual reward.

In Must I Be Carried to the Sky?, as John Hardy, we are made aware of the dictates of fantasy within the narrative. A terrified woodsman sits at the right. He is having a nightmare, a sleep of reason. Scary owls swarm at the left around his bonfire-some flying, one carrying its prey. The man’s dog snarls from between its legs. This man is confronting his mortality in the owls, traditional harbingers of death. He won’t go peacefully, according to the dog. Already his left arm is becoming something other than a human arm, something far too rigid. The sinews have become stylized, making his arm into an ornamented baluster. This arm has as much affinity to the tree that he rests his head against as to the rest of his body. The woodsman is returning to the dust of his world, becoming-dog, becoming-tree. But he is also part of the painting, his narrative that of a general return to the formal dictates of art, expressed in the fanciful, inorganic treatment of his body, the painterly passages in the owl feathers, the inconsistent scale of the animals. The factors do not belong to the story line, but rather carry the emotional impact of a story that is thereby embedded in the mute, formal properties of painting.

Color can be the vehicle that carries this wordless impact, as in Let It Shine On Me. Against a brown ground, the earth’s abundance is represented by fruit-bearing trees and blooming flowers, and by the figures who partake of it. The space is flattened out, tapestry-fashion, with the various elements scattered and every one visible. In the glowing mask of a baker’s face, blue has turned warm. The central cherry-picker’s skin is of earth values similar to the ground, as are the skins of the other figures, whereas other details are freed to a high-value palette-the light green fiddleheads and eaves like Matisse cutouts, the angelic white drapery of the figure at left, the yellow dahlia, the red cherries. The pleasurable colors are the rewards of a hardworking paintbrush, while a degree of melancholy resides in the moodier, earth-colored passages.

The brilliant coral drapery on the central cherry-picker in Let It Shine On Me has an independent logic, as Glick articulates the folds in a manner only marginally related to the body beneath. She similarly treats the goldminer’s shirt in Ingot. In both, the drapery folds result from a near-abstractionist’s sense of how the paint should move. Exactitude is only of minor importance. The cherry picker’s right arm bends at an unnatural angle; indeed, all the body parts fit together in a fabulous manner. This is a figure being freshly invented, like those in early American painting, where huge heads and tiny bodies might indicate that a memoriam of a specific face is of primary concern to the artist. Or the contorted bodies of Romanesque sculpture, where an awkward pose-an oversized blessing hand, for example-helps emphasize a particular message at the expense of organic consistency. Glick dramatically demonstrates this in Ingot, where the gold miner’s gigantic hand holds an impressive nugget. His activity of manual extraction thereby is as much an element of this portrayal as his golden prize, even though the artist does not actually show him in the process of digging. And his left eye, bigger than his right and fixed in a hypnotic stare, becomes a sign of desire.

Glick manipulates these and other details in order to heighten the emotional impact of her narratives. The things that paint can do, as the trace of fantasy and imagination, take precedence over verisimilitude, but are nonetheless never allowed to stray too far. In this, the artist has discovered the trick of effective narrative, where how something is said is as vital as any ostensible content. For Glick, the paint is the music of the song, and not its words.

Faye Hirsch