Nature has been the subject in search of a form in Mayme Kratz's art for some time now--especially fragments of nature. Since 1991, when she began embedding all sorts of found natural objects in her resin sculptures, the artist has been preoccupied with drawing attention to the smallest of small wonders.
The profusion of seeds, stems and petals, shells, twigs, insect wings and other things that appear in her 15 works at the Lisa Sette Gallery would be easy to overlook or miss in most other settings. Yet preserved as they are in layers of resin, they have the glow of valued jewels or ancient amber.
The show has several of Kratz's familiar resin sculptures, along with some resin-coated wall panels and panels that combine resin and oil paint. As with past works, these latest ones seem to have come from a naturalist turned artist--someone who has strayed from the judicious path of collecting and examining simply to bask in the warm visual pleasures of natural beauty.
"Nature cannot be surprised in undress," wrote Emerson. "Beauty breaks in everywhere." And Kratz seems to find it just about every time she hikes out of town. She gathers dead things off the trail, brings them back to her studio and, through deft handling and craftsmanship, manages to reincarnate them into art.
Kratz had no formal art training. She backed into the field by assisting an artist who specialized in architectural glasswork, and has been charting her own course ever since. She says that she has always been a collector. As a child growing up in a rural part of California, she spent a lot of time on her own poking around and bringing things home from nearby fields.
"I've always been drawn to the small things that I think most people miss," she says. "There's something about investigating the smallest thing that leads to the biggest thing--how the inside of a seed looks like a universe."
Kratz says that she initially fought the inclination to use nature in her work. It seemed too easy. So instead of scrutinizing the world's tiny things, she headed in the other direction: "I tried to go farther out into space somehow. For a while I did a lot of figurative works--mostly paintings. They had no sense of place; they weren't grounded. And the objects and people were floating and flying as though they were out there somewhere else."
Around 1991, she says, her obsessive collecting finally got the better of her. She looked around one day and realized that she was hemmed in by the birds' nests, bugs, insect wings and parts of flowers and plants that she had been accumulating. The only way out was to make something with them. Initially, she experimented with preserving and containing some of her finds in fluids. But the connotations were too scientific, too morbid. She wanted her works to be less about dissecting and categorizing, more about the beauty of nature and its cycles of living and dying.
Her first resin sculptures were small house-shaped shrines the colors of autumn and earth. The compelling translucence of the material enabled her to accentuate both the beauty of the things they contained and her own passion for nature and wilderness.
Oddly enough, their unfettered beauty has occasionally been held against them. It isn't unusual to hear people leaving her shows saying, the works are pretty, but how could they not be? They're nature in a seductive display. Kratz's works are such a romantic departure from the blustery provocations of much contemporary art that they're bound to raise such questions. There's nothing aggressive or sharp-edged about them. They aren't accompanied by a lot of academic tripe about artistic intents and meanings.
They almost seem too easy, too willing to let beauty reign. That isn't to say they hover in a realm of perfection. The house shape that Kratz used as her primary form--a cliched symbol of security and belonging--tended to limit the emotional range of her earlier resin works to a soothing nostalgia for lost moments and comforting places, both in town and in the wild.
Yet her talents and clear-eyed investigative streak have taken her beyond that. Her recent painted and resin panels and smaller sculptures show her using the microworld of seeds, plants, bugs and insect wings as a through-the-looking-glass lens onto another, larger world.
"There Is a Seed" is fairly typical of her combinations of resin and painted panels. The painted portions suggest the atmosphere or landscape of a place--perhaps the place where she collected the moss and seeds immersed in the resin. Together the two are as much a comparison as a dialogue, back and forth between the expressive mood of the painted one and the compelling intricacies of the resin other.
There's a bit too much visual explaining going on in these combination pieces, especially where Kratz haloed the seeds she fossilized into the painted surface. But the resin portions of this and "Heart Chamber," featuring butterfly wings, have the wonderful glow and look of a world beneath the surface we're accustomed to seeing.
Kratz advanced this virtue in "Dance of the Fallen Angels," an amber-toned resin panel embedded with cicada wings. Some cracking in the resin serendipitously mimicks the veining in the tiny wings. And the glistening wings and luminous resin work together to magnify the panel's depth.
These works demand to be peered into and through, as though looking inward, closer, and in greater detail--underground, underwater or subconsciously--is the key to expanding one's view.
"The question," she says, "is how close can I get? It's like taking a photograph, then getting a microscope and zooming in. I'd really like to find the cells and get down to the DNA." Her two "Lost and Found" pieces appear to have done just that. Stacked up like coded jewels, in alternating translucent pinks, yellows and off-clears, their chains of resin ice cubes containing flower petals, beetles, stems and wings and shells, leaves, seeds and insect legs amount to visual DNA--the building blocks of her own creative vision.
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These and the all-resin panels are Kratz's simplest works to date. They lack the architectural appointments and associations of her earlier shrines and the flattened obelisks in this show. But that's just as well. Their simplicity allows you to zero in on the parallels she seems to be exploring between concealed nature and hidden thoughts. Obsessively meditative, they lead you into a low-light realm where the lay of land and mind are one and the same.
Take a friend.
Mayme Kratz's Meditations continues through Saturday, June 27, at the Lisa Sette Gallery, 4142 North Marshall Way in Scottsdale. For more information, see the Art listing.