A standing cat with its inner spirit of a mythical cheetah or leopard, and its tail a ribbon-like semaphore cast up to greet the sky; a dog with its inner fox; an icon of a woman in a yoga position. Her sculptures are painterly, her paintings are sculptural, all jump with kinetic energy, vitality, seeming to inhabit a land of her own folktales, a gestalt not so much surreal as of shapeshifters carrying many inner beings of the animate world, where women have bird heads and pale blue roses live within sperm whales. Danielle Mailer creates her own visionary tribe of creatures, figures and motion.
Because her work is joyous, people may not take it seriously, but it is complex, a bit like a modern millefleurs tapestry with shades of Gaudi’s trencadis, or even of Māori tattooing.
Mailer makes paintings, archival ink prints, two-sided sculptures, jewelry. She uses mixed media, acrylic on paper and on canvas, collage, acrylic on aluminum and steel.
Her new exhibition at Provincetown’s Berta Walker Gallery, which opens on Friday, July 14, was inspired by Walker’s love of Mailer’s sculpture animals, in particular a large public art installation recently completed for an animal sanctuary in Ashford, Connecticut (one of numerous public installations that she has done). So, there are colorful cats, dogs, birds – with surprises hidden within them, a fox painted on it hiding in calla lilies, a floppy-eared dog with snippets of poetry by Mary Oliver.
There are not just animals, but full-sized dancing women covered in designs, and those figures end up also in a painting: “Body Language” (which harkens back to assemblages she made when she left still-life painting behind) merged pieces of three repurposed, reconfigured figures in kaleidoscopic color; simply it is kinetic energy, jumping off the page into space. (And, like some of her work, it has her father’s writing on it: a call to trumpet one’s resistance against power.)
The title of the show is from one of Mailer’s paintings, “Dreaming in Color,” which she said, features her daughter, now in her 30s, who was, she said, “for many years my muse.” Bursting from a coffee cup is a “DNA of symbols and icons of her dreams and mine. For we are one and the same.” Even as Mailer herself was very close to her own mother, Adele Morales Mailer. For, in spite of the sturm and drang with her famous husband, Danielle’s father, the illustrious writer Norman Mailer, Morales “imparted the zest for life onto me,” Danielle said, recalling her mum’s “great laugh,” and how she would be “excited about things,” even while trying to overcome alcoholism and depression.
“When I was out of utero, there was a stamp on me, on all of us, that we would be producers, painters, writers, artists. My father had zero credence for any kind of business or medicine. I was likely dyslexic; reading didn’t work for me. But boy, I could draw. I got my self-esteem from drawing. At 7-years-old I would sell art to my classmates for a nickel.” Her father knew that art is where she would excel and lovingly encouraged her, taking her and her sister Elizabeth to museums when they were just 5 and 3, explaining sophisticated ideas to them about such as Cezanne and Matisse.
Her mother, of Peruvian extraction, was a painter. Mailer described their West Side and Greenwich Village apartments where Adele took in blind cats and three legged dogs, identifying with them — the purple velvet couch, the leopard pillows, the palette in the corner, the cats jumping around leaving paw prints over everything, the Molas and fabric art, Mexican objects; the aromas of garlic and cooking, saying the whole scene could have been plopped into M0MA as installation art, before people had even heard that phrase.
In spite of the pandemonium of divorces, stepmothers, mistresses, and nine siblings by Norman’s various wives, there was a kind of stability. Instead of making them take summer jobs, he would have them come to whatever summer house he had at the time, in Maine and especially in Provincetown, and they grew close, and still phone each other weekly. Indeed, a red armchair in the Brooklyn Heights home, on which Norman cuddled his kids as they each came into the world, was saved by Danielle’s husband, jazz trumpeter Peter McEachern, reupholstered, and now features prominently, painted from life, in Danielle’s work. Diane Arbus’s photo of Mailer at MoMA is in that chair, and Danielle said it’s like having a piece of him in the house.
Notably, McEachern, her second husband, now of 27 years, is a supportive helpmate, who “leaves his ego behind” and turned her onto jazz; she listens to him, Miles Davis and Coltrane as she works. She is mum to his two children as well as her daughter by her first marriage to a famous and impossible guy. (And she has taught art full time for years!)
Her work is joyful, because, she said, despite any “conflict, anguish…(my father was a wild man, but I adored him) and the level of chaos, I like to call it cozy chaos — there was some spirit within me that hovered at the edge of optimism, above the throes of the darkness, and I kind of chose that path of the positivity, vibrance, celebration. It’s overused, but I have a lot of gratitude.” She’s appreciative for the gifts that life has given her.
The way that she does her sculptures is original, drawing her animals on a template which her “metal guy” cuts from aluminum, then painting acrylics on it, and coating it in an auto body shop. “The process is expensive and time consuming.
“I’m a painter more than a sculptor,” she said. Or that’s how she started, moving from art classes with notables such as George McNeil — who advised her how to create a living flow in her art — to past still-lifes, a career working for ARTnews and as a graphic designer, to experimentation: taking the figures within a painting out of it, to live on their own, and be viable on both their sides.
“I’ve always been passionate about patterning, ‘to pattern is to make human,’” she quoted. “My dream is to have a whole room, furniture and walls, to pattern. If I focus on it, it will happen.” When still in college, when everyone was getting high, she said, she found a slew of white gloves, patterned them, and sold them to Bendel’s.
She’s been told that she is part of the P&D (pattern and decoration) movement but doesn’t like classifications. It’s part of why she is happy living in Connecticut. There is not the pressure of the “voices” in the New York art scene there, the worries which “clamp down your creativity — ‘Am I hip enough, cool enough; what movement do I belong to?’”
Mailer is her own woman in her art, yet, she said, “Every time I have an opening, it’s like going to my own execution. Some people won’t even look.” However, many do, and she is in numerous collections such as the Rockefeller Foundation and the late director Miloš Forman. Berta Walker keeps her on tap; Mailer calls her, “incredibly supportive.” Returning to Provincetown where the gallery is, she said, is coming back to her spiritual home. “I love it more than anyplace in the world,” Mailer said. “It evokes so many rich memories. Some of them are painful and bittersweet and others are joyous and complicated.” The smell of the pines, she says, you cannot get anywhere else, enchants her.
Mailer hopes that viewers of “Dreaming in Color” will be surprised by the morphing imagery of her art, the care she takes for “rhythm, movement and balance,” and will enjoy the “visual pleasure of it, because I like to make things that are beautiful.”
Full disclosure, the writer of this article was featured in three of Norman Mailer’s underground films when barely out of my teens. In Danielle, I see the same life force as her father, the quest to find unique artistic expression.
(“Danielle Mailer: Dreaming in Color” can be seen (alongside the paintings of Robert Henry and Selina Trieff) from July 14 through August 6 at Berta Walker Gallery, 208 Bradford St., Provincetown, Massachusetts (the opening receptions for all three shows take place Friday, July 15 from 5-7 p.m.). For more information, call (508) 487-6411 or visit bertawalkergallery.com.)