Cast From a Different Mold

If you are desperate for some postmodern deconstruction or hankering for angst-ridden art, don't bother to stop in at Lisa Sette Gallery to see "In the Garden," the current exhibition of sculptural and two-dimensional mixed-media work by Valley artist Mayme Kratz.

You won't find much of either in the quiet, mysterious art of Kratz, whose work has always, in some way, concentrated on exposing the heart of things to the outside world and elevating the ordinary to the extraordinary. This time around, the artist unearths long-buried secrets of gardens past and the very fragile, often ambiguous, connection between humans and nature, with its seamless cycle of birth, growth and decay.

Walk into the gallery's back room and you'll stumble upon an entire village of Kratz's strange cast-resin structures stuck on stilt-supported platforms, amber and opalescent shrines to some unknown deity. Look closely and you'll discover bits and pieces of crumbling leaves, twisted sunflower heads and spiky sycamore pods that still can be smelled through the resin. Translucent petals are suspended in midair, thick stems stacked as neatly as a log cabin; roots and bulbs writhe in frozen space as though alive. Across the room, disembodied doll parts float in four more see-through houses.

The humble contents of these houses are debris that has come from Kratz's garden, or from those of friends now that she is without a garden; they are things that were once alive and, although now quiescent, still suggest renewal. Some pieces, like the dismembered dolls, recollect childhood memories of objects Kratz and her brothers would bury, forget, then disinter ("like toys and money and vitamins we didn't want to take," recalls Kratz). The artist sanctifies these modest remains by placing them in what she has called resin reliquaries.

"The houses are actually altars," explains Kratz. "I refer to them as reliquaries, since they're taking what I find precious and giving it a sense of place and importance. I think a trip I took to Italy years ago probably had quite an effect on me--seeing fingers, toes, ears and hair of saints, which were often completely unrecognizable as such, encased in elaborate glass receptacles; that presentation gave them an incredible presence."

According to Kratz, she chose the archetypal house form she so deftly uses to ensconce her earthy treasures for reasons beyond its classic, pretty obvious, metaphorical significance: "It creates an order. For me it creates a sense of belonging and boundaries, and gives me a starting point. It's like creating a garden because you find this order, then plant, and chaos happens.

"When I have a structure to start with, I feel like I have more freedom with what I put inside and that it's all right if chaos happens. But I need that order first."

As part of "In the Garden," Kratz has dotted a black wall with tiny crystal balls mounted on silver pins and embedded with bees, butterfly wings, seeds and roots; the effect is one of a starry firmament, echoing a number of ghostly, wax-dipped paintings that are also in the show. "I call the individual pieces links," Kratz says, referring to her gallery-size galaxy. "Essentially, I view them as our link with nature, something that we'd ordinarily just step on and wouldn't see. I try to give them a presence, a place." Plucking one from the wall and demonstrating how it slides onto a silver chain, the artist adds, "They're wearable, so you can carry them with you during the day."

On another wall, Kratz has placed "5 Pages," a swirling bird's nest embedded in thick resin resembling quartz, then sliced into pages to reveal the nest at different levels, like some sort of primitive CAT scan; in an adjoining room, "Solo Flight," three joined panels in the same matrix feature an actual dead bird flanked by nests.

References to medical procedures and death arenot entirely new to Kratz and her work. The 29year-old artist, who looks more like she belongs in a pre-Raphaelite painting than in a Tempe industrial studio filled with band saws and belt sanders, has always been intrigued by the inner workings of living things and the secrets they harbor.

Her preoccupation with exposing what has long been hidden or forgotten relates back to growing up in rural surroundings. "When you grow up in the country, you have a lot of animals that eventually die. I would bury them, then a few weeks later I'd wonder whether they were really dead," states the artist, who is a painter as well as a sculptor. "So I would dig them up. I knew they were dead, but believed that a transition would happen and there was still a life form there--I didn't want to miss it."

Born and raised in Julian, a small mountain town north of San Diego that boasts more apple trees than inhabitants, Kratz, at the tender age of 6, started exploring what made things tick by dissecting them. "I wanted to be a doctor," she says with a laugh, recalling the beginnings of her artistic endeavors. "One of the things I thought I should do if I wanted to be a doctor was to understand how things worked, how the insides of everything functioned.

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