Part sci-fi, part figures from “primitive” mythology, part cartoon, always humorous, slightly macabre, surreal, and offbeat, Deb Mell’s mixed media paintings and sculptures are wildly unique totemic chimeras. Like walking into a lodge where a ritual will begin, or a theater where you will watch a post-apocalyptic exorcism. There is something so alive, joyful, inventive and mysterious about her work, that you want to adopt it like a new pet, make it part of your family, study and make inquiry into her pieces for weeks and years. It’s on display at Provincetown’s Berta Walker Gallery through November 12.
Growing up in a small Illinois town near Cahokia where the Mound Builders lived, their stories and those of her grandparents handed down from her matrilineal great-grandmother who was unregistered Cherokee, one of those Mell said, who fled to the hills — infiltrated her consciousness. Add to that her grandfather’s farm with tons of animals, chickens, peacocks and her worldview began to be formed.
She was always doing art; all through school if something needed doing, like decorations and sets for homecoming, she’d do it. She’d take extra-curricular classes on filmmaking, or create geodesic dome cabins out of garden hose, intrigued by science and math as well as art, and inviting herself to lunch with Buckminster Fuller, inventor of geodesic architecture. “I will never forget how he pulled out a brown bread sandwich with onions, just like what I would eat at home and shared it with me, and that was lunch.”
When Mell studied art at college in the 1970s, the fad was minimalism. She did it, reluctantly, while creating little characters to give to people in small boxes. She was invited into an exhibition at the Rockland Museum in Illinois, of “artists’ closet work,” where she let those flamboyant characters begin to come out, deciding that “my closet work is now my work.”