Susan Danton, owner of Miller White Fine Arts on Cape Cod, said the exhibit “Love Letters,” that she originated and curated, was inspired by an 1846 letter from Gustave Flaubert to his lover, Louise Colet: “I will cover you with love when next I see you, with caresses, with ecstasy. I want to gorge you with all the joys of the flesh, so that you faint and die.” If you are wondering if there is a further French connection, no, she isn’t a descendant of the French revolutionary Georges Jacques Danton. Her stockbroker father changed their surname to Danton.
Danton has multiple raisons d’êtres for the exhibit, calling it “an evocative inquiry into physical love, from gender to sex to sexual orientation.” Motivated in part by a “sociopolitical agenda,” to wit, the Me Too Movement, “Love Letters” is also an antidote to the hate we are seeing in our nation and “a way to provoke a discussion in the community about aspects of love. I want to talk about love, how roles shift and bend: one person may be the leader, one a follower,” and those modes may switch, but “even between committed partners, consent has to be given.” People have to keep discussing what makes them feel safe, what is OK to do in the physical realm of sex, and later Danton added, in the divisive political realm as well, to talk it out, create common ground.
In addition, it’s a means for Danton to create a personal catharsis for some of her own “demons.” One to exorcise is that just as she was curating “Love Letters,” her husband’s brother took his own life. After this shattering event, Danton said she was in a “liminal space. People said take a deep breath and keep going. This is important.” The necessity of the show became even more imperative.
In spirit, even though actual ages vary from young to older, Danton said, “I wanted to pick mature artists for this one. Grown-ups,” to respond to the Flaubert prompt. There are almost 30 invitees — some whom her gallery represents, some from other galleries; some working on the Cape, some beyond. A few gave her completed work; others burst into spontaneous creation explicitly for this exhibit.
The beautifully hung, multi-room exhibit includes varied interpretations of love, “within a variety of artistic traditions” from figural to abstract, sculpture to painting.
Some are fanciful like Deborah Forman’s bright collage of digital photos, including images from the Rockwell Kent painting on Cape Cinema’s ceiling; Lauren Wolk’s clock assemblage expressive of her grandmother; and “Game of Love,” a color field work using bits of love letters between Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe by Jane Eccles. Some are sensual: Cecilia Rossey’s “Eve in Her Garden”; Laura Lee Flanagan’s photo of a nude in a pink room; Pooja Campbell’s nude anticipating her lover, entitled “The Wait”; an erotic piece by Richard Neal; a very sexy sculpture of a couple by Romolo Del Deo and a Teresa Baksa multidimensional charcoal.
James Wolf created a huge collage of intriguing watercolor females unlike his usual, more abstract works, and Joe Diggs has a mysterious piece in monochromatic grays. There’s a love token, an amethyst necklace fit for a queen, by Michael Baksa, who will have, with Jackie deRuyter, an exhibit at Miller White later this fall; and a powerful abstraction entitled “Heartbreaker” by William Allen, acrylic and mixed media on canvas.
And set behind a screen for privacy, you see a small piece by Danton in moody colors with what could be Moby Dick’s eye looking at you, and on it, a real miniature, red, empty chair. Earphones tune you into Kina Grannis’ version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.” She created this piece entitled “His Last Act,” which looks, she said, “like explosion, looks like loss” — writing and painting telepathically a week before the suicide. “When I do a painting, it initially comes from a place I often don’t understand,” Danton commented.
The artists in the show also bared their souls, not just in their visual presentations, but because Danton insisted that instead of an artist’s statement, a written personal take on love hangs on the wall next to their works. A hard thing to do, but the artists came through after some grumbling.
Sculptor and painter Jackie deRuyter’s “I feel you before I see you. I know you are close and my body gives in,” or painter Ulla Neigenfind’s “You beloved, seductive red” – both about the color red and the love force it represents – exemplify the fire in the written statements. And Wolf’s one-liner takes the cake for romantic ribaldry: “Everyone I’ve f…d my dreams can’t add up to you.” Danton’s poem next to her work contains such moving lines as “And should your presence cease to grace my own, the only place worth hiding is the sweet gullet of a hummingbird.”
At an open mic at the start of the exhibition, the artists shared these statements with the public. Neigenfind read in German and English, Laura Fantini in Italian and English. Rossey almost came to tears remembering her dead beloved while reading the line, “entering my body is permanent.” Young Jill Hedrick, who uses photo clippings to make her art, dedicated her piece to her new and final love, vulnerably voicing, “All the men in my life have led me to this one, and this is it.”
An anonymous painter said that Danton expects and gets a lot from her artists, especially when creating exhibits around specific themes. Danton explained, “Our gallery is a truth lab, a beauty lab. We have a mission of investigating intelligent contemporary art, and our trifecta which ‘Love Letters’ exemplifies, combines images, writing and a dialogue with the public.” She continued, “As a professional art therapist, I use art to get people talking. This show will make us think. We will be smarter because of it, use our eyes, see colors we’ve never seen before. It’s healing,” good for the “neural health” of herself, the artists and the community.
Indeed, she wants “Love Letters” to start a trend, with shows like it all over the nation, and would love to take this specific exhibit on the road.
Danton’s gallery, opened eight years ago, has grown since then, hosting some 40 shows with a roster of artists Danton has culled and helped foster. Danton has grown, too, since her start as an art student in New York City who wanted a career in fashion design, but who decided to “build her bag lady funds” by becoming a stockbroker, then a defense paralegal, before following her parents to the Cape in her 30s and pursuing art as a self-taught figural artist and art therapist.
She ran a mobile therapeutic arts studio for a time until motherhood with a special-needs son demanded all her attention. When her son “entered a residential school to meet his own needs,” she said, “I’m doing it” to her chiropractor/musician husband, Thom Bober, who she said, “helps me manifest my dreams.” And she opened the gallery, naming it for her great aunt and mother.
Her great aunt was the celebrated Dorothy “Dodi” Canning Miller, the first curator of MoMA, a groundbreaking role for a woman in the 1930s and beyond; a tastemaker who later “built collections” for the Rockefellers. “She was so beautiful, everyone wanted to sleep with her,” Danton said with a smile. Miller was a huge influence in many ways and a major reason why Danton wanted to become a gallerist.
One day, when Danton was 10, her mum told her husband, “We’re going to live abroad” — and so they did for six years in London, giving Danton exposure to high culture, galleries, museums, concerts. Miller’s niece, Edith White, Danton’s mother, “can’t draw a straight line but is one of my biggest fans. And I think my great aunt would be proud of me.”
Beyond this exhibit, what drives Danton is, she said, that “art is an agent for change, if we are not changing for the better by doing this, I don’t know why we’re here; we can make something out of nothing, so we should take responsibility for that. Once we know how to do it — then what are we going to do about it? We can do it just for entertainment purposes but those people won’t be here in this gallery.”
The gallery also hosts events like anniversaries and birthdays. There’s a huge organic garden out back, fringed with forest — growing 30 varieties of tomatoes. “We’ll have a tomato party this fall, with dancing and pizza; wear red!” A gazebo and outdoor kitchen are planned to make it even more of a gala community event venue.