In our last visit to the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, we learned that there is a branch downtown that features modern and contemporary art. The original location, housed in an Italian Renaissance villa with an extensive formal garden, can be a challenge for exhibitions. The downtown branch opened in 2013. Situated in a complex of galleries and art institutes, the open-floor two-story building is a perfect setting for large-scale contemporary works.
It was here we saw Mike Glier’s exhibition – The Alphabet of Lili. It was so refreshing to see contemporary paintings, even though the central pieces were made more than two decades ago. They are massive – 26 paintings on plexiglass of equal size displayed in two rows on a long wall. And they are engaging – the moment I set eyes on them, I could not move away from the series.
The Alphabet of Lili stems out of a fatherhood concept, based on Glier’s bedtime reading to his daughter. Each painting represents one letter of the alphabet by depicting elements like a word play. For the letter B, bath and bees are rendered. For letter Z, you sneak through a partially-opened zipper.
Yet, it has none of the nighttime gentility. The world of Lili is as real as it gets – atomic boom, pollution, racial strife, and murders fill the images. No one expects the KKK would be an appropriate bedtime story for a toddler. It is more a reflection of the artist’ consciousness, out of the desire to protect children from danger by any means, but not to shield them from the awareness of its very existence. In Glier’s own words, it is about how to stay optimistic even though the future can be unpredictable.
There is a sense of fluidity, deeply rooted in a canon of western art. That virtuosity is met with directions and means. Glier has applied a variety of techniques in painting and drawing which span over centuries of art history. But oddly, they not only are sensible aesthetically but also speak authoritatively.
Viewed from afar, these panels carry movement and momentum. Glier applies large gestural strokes in deep-hued colors to infer a world of anger, fear, and violence. Despite all the commotion in each painting, he often positions little legs of Lili, with extraordinary anatomy, centered and firmly grounded. And here and there, upon closer inspection, we find graffiti. They spell out words as if all were part of mischievous play.
Eric and I have reservations on contemporary works in which faculty of painterly skills is exercised as the ultimate goal. They often look clumsy, despite sparkle. Glier can pull it off because he refuses to let the plasticity of paint into his way of conveying – even though the message itself can be ambiguous. At the end of it, instead of asking how can it be?, I came to the conclusion of how can it be otherwise?
That conundrum between authority and ambiguity is mesmerizing. Everyone wants to decipher the words behind each letter first, and then perhaps try in vain to link those words. Only after one steps away from individual panels do they see a world of complexity. It’s down right serious. You might be disturbed by the chaos, or feel frightened by the coherence of chaos throughout all 26 letters. But then, you see Lili standing there. That’s the hope.
The exhibition closed on April 1, 2017. But you can watch a short video here.
Mike Glier on “The Alphabet of Lili” from Philbrook Museum on Vimeo.