Lafayette gallery’s exhibit explores late resident’s life with cancer
By Lou Fancher
A mother-son team and the artwork of seven visionaries have turned the biological artifacts of a body ravaged by cancer into beautiful expressions of power, joy, death, loss, hope, humor and in-your-face truth.
The by-appointment-only viewings available Jan. 20-24 of “Deconstruction,” the show currently at Jennifer Perlmutter Gallery, will extend into eternity later in 2021 with a virtual exhibit and the premiere of a companion documentary film. The eight installations in the physical exhibit conceptualize Joyce Mallonee’s 25 years living with cancer — including her last 14 years in Stage IV breast cancer.
The condition metastasized to her bones, liver and lungs and required surgeries, medications and treatments that plundered, removed or replaced parts of her body. What remained true and remains in the artwork on display is one woman’s remarkable spirit and enthusiasm for art and its ability to help us transcend the physical properties of real life and its end.
Mallonee, a Lafayette resident at the time of her passing, studied and practiced artistry but never consider herself an artist. Yet with her son, Alex Mallonee, a filmmaker and director now living in Lafayette, her legacy stamp as an artist is established in the exhibit that closes Jan. 24 — significantly, the day she would have celebrated her 70th birthday had she not succumbed to cancer last Oct. 4.
In an interview, her son says his young age and naïveté when she was first diagnosed turned into fear and anxiety during his teen years and then a feeling of “panic rushing out of your gut” in 2006 and 2007 when the cancer returned with a new sense of urgency. It was in her bones.
“She was Stage IV … and there’s no Stage V. But after that, I was in a place of not wanting to deal with it; of actively running away from it, not talking about it, pushing it to the side,” says Mallonee. “The precursor to talking about it was my moving to New York in 2017. I grew up in the Bay Area and had never been too far away from home. I was 30 and wanted to live somewhere else. Her advice was always to not let her cancer rule my life; to go away and do what I wanted to do.”
In New York, he was surprised to find himself having waking and actual nightmares.
“The cancer became like a monkey on my back,” he says.
Prior to and upon his return in December 2019, the floodgates opened. He and his mother began to talk about the cancer, illness, separation, depression, loneliness — and art. Back in the Bay Area, they made a concerted effort to actualize and define the purpose of the project now know as “Deconstruction.”
Collaborating artists invited to participate were guided to create works exploring themes related to essential mechanisms his mother used to cope with her condition: a dark, macabre sense of humor she shared with her son; healthy denial that had much to do with her surviving cancer for a quarter-century; vanity that at one time dictated changing oncologists to avoid chemo; and a synthesis of these characteristics that empowered her to repeatedly face insurmountable odds with courage.
“In July 2020, she said, ‘If one person could walk away from “Deconstruction” feeling less alone, that is what I want this to do,’ ” Mallonee recalls.
His younger sister, Carson Kljavin, of Oakland, is an interior designer and operated as project manager and conceptual partner for “Deconstruction.” As her mother’s physical abilities declined, Kljavin assumed responsibility for cataloging artifacts, creating show plans, layouts and frames and mounting artifacts.
The exhibit includes a wall-mounted piece, a diorama, posters modeled like oversized trading cards, a dress made entirely of Mallonee’s pills, light boxes showing scans of her body, a skeletal snake and a collection of her acrylic still-life paintings. Kljavin says working on the show was difficult. The daily reminders of loss were countered by the love, care and compassion that she witnessed.
“I have never seen death that close before, and for how overwhelmingly sad moments were, there was an odd beauty to it. People often shy away from talking about death, but I feel it’s important to open ourselves up to those conversations,” Kljavin said.
“Deconstruction” reminds her of the pleasure found in making something creative with her hands — not on a computer — and of human resiliency.
“So much can be stripped away, but at the end, how you take on each day will always shine through and cannot be diminished,” she says.
Mallonee says collaborating with his mother on the project was “like flipping a switch” personally and professionally.
“Before, I was the person who couldn’t talk about cancer. I had things flashing in front of my eyes, like the worst possible thing happening. Talking about it cut through all the anxiety. I realized I hadn’t been asking her specific things. When other folks asked her how she was doing, they didn’t really want to know. They just felt obligated and wanted her to say ‘I’m fine.’ That really incensed her. She would get mad, not at people individually, but more that it was happening in the broader sense of avoiding truth.”
Before the pandemic, Mallonee thought the primary audience for “Deconstruction” would be people who had experienced cancer or were close to someone with cancer. With the pandemic, he realized a show about death, isolation, illnesses and human creativity and courage was universally topical but that people would be unable to attend safely.
“I knew we needed to create a virtual gallery show and, because I make documentaries, a companion film too.”
With projects such as music videos, film trailers and commercials and clients that include pop and rock musicians, Mercedes-Benz, Duraflame and others, Mallonee says his work has always been narrative.
“Things I’m drawn to are absurdist, comic, but what’s been lacking in my work is a tenderness, a revealing of something personal. During COVID, it’s hard to gather, so we haven’t had a ceremony marking her death. This feels like a celebration of her life: not stuffy and very much in her voice. Without it, I’d be searching for something that would be a legacy for her. The virtual show and documentary are not just me holding the candle of her memory. There will be something tangible that lasts.”
Mallonee plans to enter the documentary into film festival competitions and eventually, release it on digital platforms. Community screenings for cancer support groups and others are included in the marketing program, as is a hoped-for traveling exhibit that includes the physical art along with screenings of the film. In the meantime, “Deconstruction” is fundraising for support to cover production costs, artist compensation and other expenses. The show and film are fiscally sponsored by the Independent Documentary Association, a 501(c)3 organization, and donations are tax-deductible. The project is also accepting small dollar donations on PayPal.