Thursday August 16, 2012

PITTSFIELD - Maggie Mai-ler's solo shows at the Ferrin Gallery have become an annual event, and this fifth installment, "The Starry Outpost," takes on a distinctly literary flavor. The works are presented as illustrations for a fictive fiction: an unwritten novel about fantastical worlds and complex storylines.

As the daughter of author Norman Mailer, holder of a bachelor's degree in literature, and the mother of a young child (where storytelling is mandatory), Maggie Mailer's impulse to weave word with image is understandable. But artworks need to stand on their own. Rather than viewing this exhibit through the lens of a specific narrative, I approached the work as I would for any other show.

Mailer is principally a landscapist who freely appropriates the language of other periods and artists. In several pieces, for example, we hear whispers of Watteau's 18th-century Rococo landscapes and Corot's 19th-century countrysides in the feathery foliage and languid limbs of the trees. But these murmurs tend to obfuscate Mailer's own voice. Too often such paintings read as loose, tweaked copies or pastiches of earlier art, which holds limited fascination for a sophisticated audience.

While Mailer's work registers many stylistic directions, her authorship is usually recognizable. Her scenes, whether impressionistic or more naturalistic, generally serve as a dreamy substratum for superimposed abstractions. At times the visual disparity between the landscapes and floating elements - amorphous shapes, polka dots, and rigid horizontals- is so great that the language becomes conceptually irreconcilable. When this happens, as in "You Can't Get There," the piece simply seems unsure of its artistic identity.

However, when abstract motif and background strike a visual harmony and a soft, pastel tonality bathes the scene, Mailer's paintings can be quite successful, even beautiful. Here, I'm thinking of works like "Lake of Dreams" and "Sea of Clouds." Bejeweled with flecks of color, these small canvases possess extremely pleasing surfaces; their vague suggestion of landscape is most effective. In a word, these pieces are masterful.

Mailer's feathery technique is an adaptation of the process developed by regional artist Joe Goodwin. Although a non-representational painter, Goodwin's works are often compared to landscapes, making Mailer's choice of subjects apposite. Her more abstracted pieces, like "Sea of Clouds," venture very near to Goodwin's language, and these are arguably her most enchanting works.

Two paintings stand out as unique examples in their own stylistic categories. The calligraphic "The Empty Water" rises like colorful coral beneath a pale blue sea. A sparing touch of crimson, resembling floating droplets of blood, adds just the right accent. This lovely painting is a captivating balance between depth and flatness. A striated silhouette on the left boldly marks the picture plane beyond which the scene recedes.

In contrast to the other works, "Ocean of Storms" has substantial solidity, both in its imagery and paint surface. Climbing out from the water, towering plumes of smoke entwine and embrace. The resulting monumental arch commands attention, and its compositional statement lingers in our thoughts. In this case, Mailer's source image was a photograph. She works very well from photography, and her imagery reads far more original than when based on earlier period styles.

Although uneven both in artistic voice and quality, "The Starry Outpost" certainly has bright spots to offer. The show's inconsistent character may in part reflect Mailer's decision to wrap her work around a narrative apparatus. In any case, this outpost is a good destination to head for.