Purple Magazine
— The Island Issue #35 S/S 2021

cover #11 elizabeth glaessner


interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
courtesy of the artist and p·p·o·w, new york

what are these anthropo­morphic creatures, the toxic palette, and the orgiastic tableaux telling us? is it a psychedelic eden or a bad trip, stories of survivalism or genderless sexuality?

OLIVIER ZAHM — Your universe fits perfectly with Purple’s Island issue on many levels: for the colors, the stories, and the Eden-like atmosphere of your paintings, which also have a nightmarish aspect.
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — Yeah, that’s interesting. Well, I grew up in Houston, Texas, and moved to New York in 2007. The Texas landscape is a lot different from here. Obviously, Houston is not an island, but there is one close by… Have you been there?

OLIVIER ZAHM — I’ve been there once. It’s an island in Texas. [Laughs]
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — That’s true because it’s not like any other part. The landscape is pretty eerie and a little surreal. There are huge leaning oak trees next to palm trees, bayous, lots of mosquitos.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a very modern city in the middle of conservative America, right? It feels like a city that has landed out of the sky.
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — Yeah, it’s a very culturally rich and diverse city, and there are some great art museums, like the Menil Collection, where the Rothko Chapel was built. It’s kind of an anomaly within the state.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Your mother is also a painter.
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — She’s the reason I got into art. I was amazed by her, and I wanted to be as good at something as she was at drawing. My mom is a complex woman: she plays by her own rules. She was a single mom to me, my brother, and my sister, which meant that we went wherever she went. She started teaching art and was actually our elementary school art teacher, so we spent a lot of time in an art classroom.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, your childhood was an artistic island, in a way.
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — Yeah. I was fortunate to grow up in a creative environment and to be introduced to art at a young age. Everyone in my family is pretty intense. And, I think, because of my mom, we had a very bizarre childhood.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Was your mom into weird stuff? Was she a hippie? Did she believe in aliens? [Laughs]
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — Maybe all of those things. She’s a mystery…

OLIVIER ZAHM — You mean that she was distant and didn’t like her children so much?
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — At times, sure! I don’t blame her — we were three hyper-needy kids fighting for her attention. But she always loved us. She struggled with depression and raised us while getting her master’s degree in bilingual education and working full-time. So, she’s truly an incredible woman. She just didn’t play into that dependable motherly archetype. My dad was more consistent.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And you like her paintings?
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — Yeah, I framed one of her drawings in college and live with it every day. She stopped painting when she and my dad divorced and started teaching art. She found this Catholic ex-nun to come live with us and help with my brother, who is on the spectrum. Sister Delmy. She was twisted. When I was nine or 10, she woke me up in the middle of the night to watch The Exorcist, but in Spanish, which made it harder to understand. I remember the spinning head scene very clearly. She lived with us for about five years. My mom eventually had to get a restraining order on her because she was a dangerous person and refused to leave. I later found out that they were in a relationship when Delmy moved in, which makes sense now, but considering she went to church with us in her nun outfit, I never would have guessed it as a kid. One of many secrets.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, she was a lesbian living in the middle of Texas.
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — I’m not sure how she perceived her sexuality then. She never talked about it. I didn’t find out until I was in my 20s, living in New York. But it wasn’t a huge surprise. She’s a very spontaneous person, and she does what she feels in the moment.

OLIVIER ZAHM — To come back to your paintings and Eden, there’s this Fauvist palette, using extreme colors like red and green to express reality in a totally mental way. Do they represent something positive or toxic for you?
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — I think both. I do think about these toxic colors, these kind of acid greens…

OLIVIER ZAHM — Brutal, shiny yellow. Uncomfortable blue.
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — Yeah, I guess I’m drawn to color that is so intense that it could go either way. Like, it’s either repulsive or toxic or totally sublime. In terms of color, when I start painting, I usually work on the floor. I pour paint onto the surface and then work into that. So, when I’m pouring the color, I’m figuring out the mood of the painting.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you have your symbolic repertoire of colors?
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — Yeah, I think so. I mean, it’s not always closed. I like to keep things open. The colors start to symbolize or mean different things.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What makes you want to paint a body in a flashy green?
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — [Laughs] Um, yeah, the green. I can’t escape the green. It’s pervasive and a little perverse, too. The satyr is green. I think about the way that Munch uses green to paint sickness but also life. Trees and toxins. It can be so gross, but I like that about it. Lots of potential.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You definitely have your own palette with these vibrant, electric, even toxic hues.
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — I guess that’s one place where I can play while I’m painting. I put a color down and then decide what to do next… I don’t start with a predetermined color palette, you know? Too much planning kills the vibe.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you weren’t influenced by a specific painter or time in art history?
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — For the colors? Yes, definitely. I love Munch — he’s one of my favorite painters. Kirchner… My grandmother is from Austria, from Vienna. Both of my grandparents on my dad’s side are Jewish Austrians who escaped during the war. So, my grandmother introduced me to artists like Schiele, Kokoschka, Kirchner.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Kirchner, of course. Painting from Vienna in the beginning of the 20th century was an explosion of color.
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — Yeah, definitely.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, let’s go back to the nightmare. There’s a traumatic aspect to your paintings, tinged with the erotic, because all the creatures seem to be in paradise, but if you look carefully, it’s also very dark. Do you like this ambiguity?
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — Well, I think it’s familiar to me.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it a self-portrait?
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — I think, in a way, when you grow up with a specific feeling, it becomes familiar, and then you kind of repeat it throughout your life. Until you get enough therapy to stop. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — Have you done a lot of therapy?

OLIVIER ZAHM — Was it useful?
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — Yeah, mostly recently. It wasn’t when I was younger. My parents put me in therapy, and I didn’t want to talk. The nun years were pretty traumatic. I can talk about it now and even laugh about how strange it all was.

OLIVIER ZAHM — From what I’ve seen, your paintings mostly feature women, who look a bit animalistic, too.
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — Women that could be men, or vice versa. Gender as a choice.

OLIVIER ZAHM — They’re definitely very strong, but they also have very feminine curves and sometimes tits. And an ass, a female ass. That’s the way I see it. Maybe it’s a projection. [Laughs]
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — Yeah. I mean, men have asses, too. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — But as a woman artist, does gender matter to you when you paint?
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — That’s a good question. I think it’s shifted throughout my life. I think I was more conscious of it when I was younger. I started out only working with watercolor on paper. Right after college, I started making really big watercolors of strong women — like female pro-wrestlers — to sort of counter the big oil-on-canvas paintings made by men.

OLIVIER ZAHM — We call that the Julian Schnabel syndrome.
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — Exactly. [Laughs] That’s really funny: my grandmother’s maiden name is Schnabel. I don’t
think they’re related.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You had something to prove as a woman in painting.
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — Yeah, it was fuel. Now, I think it’s amazing how we accept that gender — like most things — is so fluid, and as a culture, we’re starting to accept that it’s a choice. Had that been the case when I was growing up, I think about how things might be different. But we’re still living in a male-dominated world. The art world is still dominated by white men. But I don’t feel like gender has to be the first thing that I’m talking about in a painting.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Hearing what you say, I realize that your creatures are really genderless, and they express something of this fluidity and this evolution, in a way.
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — Yeah. I’ve always been interested in fluidity in my work, in terms of materials. I started with watercolors, and I always used a lot of water, and even when I’m doing oils now, I pour — so, I’m mixing the oils with solvent to create more of a liquid. And naturally, the content is sort of fluid and morphing and not fully formed or decided. I think that’s what makes it exciting to make.

OLIVIER ZAHM — We’re also made of 60% water.

OLIVIER ZAHM — When we see your paintings, we can feel something of an evolution of sexuality, too, which adds to the mystery. Regarding the current sexual revolution, would you say that your painting expresses these new erotic possibilities?
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — I’m all for sexual liberation and being able to express and explore this freely… Especially in America, there’s so much stigma when discussing sexuality. It’s absurd. So, I think about breaking that psychology down in my paintings. I think there’s so much power in sexual liberation, and it can be dangerous to not have that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you start a painting? Because they’re very narrative — they tell a story generally between two people, right? Or there’s at least one main figure.
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — I do a lot of works on paper. I can show you. I guess you can see on the wall there’s…

OLIVIER ZAHM — Those are studies?
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — Yeah, and also finished pieces. I like to keep them up as I’m making larger paintings. Through drawing and through reading, writing, I come up with the ideas. Then I start to do the works on paper, where I think about color and composition. And then, I start the bigger paintings… These are two larger ones that I’m working on now. And I also print out works that aren’t in my studio so I can continue the story or the thought. They’re all works on paper that I’ve done in the last year. This way, when I’m painting, I can say, “Oh, I remember the mood from that one.” Or this character and this color and maybe the way I painted that landscape. I like to merge these things together in the bigger paintings.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you have several different works on paper, as a starting point?

OLIVIER ZAHM — And do you read a lot before painting?
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — Yeah. Actually, when I went to do this residency in Galveston last year, I read Norwegian Wood by Murakami. There’s something about the landscapes in his books that makes me think of the Texas landscape. I also remembered this scene from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which is one of my favorite books, where he talks about alleys with no exits or wells with no water, as being this space that exists but doesn’t really exist, where the conscious meets the subconscious. I read that after high school and went into the backyard looking for the area between our backyard fence and the neighbors, an alley without an exit, and tried to find the space where I leave time or something. I was probably high. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is this your definition of painting, in between two…
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — Yes, actually, I think it is. As I’m saying that, that makes a lot of sense. Sometimes people ask, in reference to my work: “Is this before our time? Is this in the future? Is it the apocalypse?” But I think the best way to describe it would be that space in between fences that parallels our reality but exists outside of time.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Between the apocalypse and now, or between representation and abstraction… Between you and me.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you have a favorite type of landscape?
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — I think forests.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Ah, forests, yes. Because of the nymphs, secrecy, danger. Have you had any experiences with islands? ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — Yes, it’s interesting timing because I just spent a year doing that artist residency in Galveston, an island off the Gulf Coast of Texas.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s it like?

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it a tropical island?
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — There are palm trees and sand, but it’s also a city. When you’re on the beach, looking out into the ocean, you see oil rigs. Because, you know, there’s a ton of oil money to be made over there. So, in every majestic ocean view, there’s a cloud of smoke or a freight ship involved. You can never escape the reality of…

OLIVIER ZAHM — Capitalism.
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — Exactly, and corporate pollution. There was an oil spill there several years ago, and there was tar washing up on the shore for a long time after that. Galveston is also known for a variety of bird species that fly through there when they’re migrating, and they suffered from the spill. There are still a lot of birds and beautiful things and people in Galveston, but don’t eat a ton of fish from the ocean, you know. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — And was working on an island inspiring for you?
ELIZABETH GLAESSNER — Absolutely. Also, just getting away from the pressures of living in New York. I love this city, but I’ve been here for 14 years, and I needed a break. It got to be really difficult to focus. I felt a sense of real freedom when I got to Galveston. Here, when I close my studio door, it doesn’t feel like everyone’s gone. [Laughs] I’m not alone, really. There, when I closed the door, it felt like that was my space, and I could set my own rules, and I didn’t feel the pressure of other people’s needs. It was great.



[Table of contents]

The Island Issue #35 S/S 2021

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