And pluck the wings from painted butterflies,

To fan the moonbeams from his sleeping eyes:

Nod to him, elves, and do him courtesies.

Hail, mortal! -- From "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Joan Danziger has been out of town for a while. But she's back -- she and her marvelous menagerie of animal-humans, and human-animals.

And now there's something new in her work. Where previously her whimsical, painted papier-ma che' figures were large and autonomous, invading the viewer's space, challenging him with crocodile smiles and cat questions, they now exist within their own fantasy environments. They dart behind the pillars of magic temples, gambol on richly decorated carpets or peek coyly from under rhinoceros masks. Some hold hands, gazing distantly away from each other; some stroke stripy cats, or play fabulous stringed instruments. And if you listen very carefully . . .

"Some people enter into my world, and some people don't," she says, with a penetrating twinkle. "I'm fascinated with the real and the unreal, the expected and the unexpected -- the mysterious presence of personal reality. Life has gotten so complex; people hide behind masks -- we hide behind closed doors and opened doors, particularly in the contemporary world.

"I'm much more involved with the hidden resources of my mind," Danziger says, motioning to one of her new wall sculptures -- a curious temple with steps leading to nowhere, corners painted in that you cannot see around, and guarded by giant tabby cats and comically ferocious hawks. "I'm a typical Gemini," she says, seriously, a "split personality. My people are in front of columns, and behind columns. . ."

Joan Danziger was born in New York City in 1934, and took her BFA in painting at Cornell University. She then lived in Rome for two years, between 1955 and 1958, studying at the Academy of Fine Arts.

"People don't think of me this way, but I came out of the Abstract Expressionist era -- when you didn't think of doing anything else. But I was trained as a painter. You couldn't do this sort of work unless you were a trained painter. I studied the glazing and underpainting and stuff. But eventually I found the concept of a picture too limiting, and, in the early '60s, I began doing these little pen drawings, full of creatures. Then I started building them. I became a sculptor.

"But now, with these new environmental pieces -- like with these rugs here, and the painted friezes -- I've fallen in love with painting again."

Indeed, one of the most striking things about Danziger's new work is the care and attention to the painterly aspect of the surfaces, a sort of three-dimensional trompe l'oeil. The carpets and folded fabrics that drape the ornamental chairs and tables, or flow out from between the pillars, have the quality of Ce'zanne about them. To a certain degree, Danziger can even dictate the light source and shadows with this technique. And these new works have evidently hit a chord: She can't keep up with the new commissions.

Though represented here in town by the Fendrick Gallery, Danziger has spent the last four or five years showing all over the country.

"I was living in Princeton for two years, and had a show at the New Jersey State Museum. And in the last few years, I've had shows at the Terry Dintenfass Gallery in New York, and shows in Chicago, New Orleans and Philadelphia. And in June, this year, I was artist in residence at the World's Fair for the Louisiana Arts Exposition Pavilion."

Danziger is gearing up for a show of her work next April at the Textile Museum. This will be the first time she has had a show consisting solely of her wall pieces.

"I want to show in as many places as possible," she says. "The next stop is Europe."

Danziger lovingly pats one of the big cats guarding the fac,ade of a wall sculpture -- one wonders if it is there to keep the viewer out, or keep the magic figures in? -- and says, almost to herself: "I love cats. Cats are strong, and mysterious, and evocative. To me they symbolize another world. And the birds of prey, too. They're beautiful but deadly. I think I'd like to come back as a bird of prey. Of course, that's always been man's dream, hasn't it? To fly."