Visual Arts

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.

"I lived in an area where there was a pond out front, so I went fishing every day and would catch bluegill and catfish. I decided that surgery and exchanging internal organs was probably a really good way to learn medicine and that, if the transplants were successful, I was on the right track. So I would take the liver out of the bluegill and put it into the catfish and vice versa, then sew them back up. I had very crude tools--my mother's sewing kit, these tiny little scissors, a little needle and thread and some Mercurochrome, that orange stuff, to help the healing process along."

Kratz reports that she spent countless hours dissecting, rearranging and sewing her piscine patients back up: "I was so sincere about my endeavor, so focused on it, that I didn't think that it wouldn't work. I guess in that initial observing and dissecting, it started transferring to other things--flowers, apples, seeds. I really started to investigate everything. ... I have to add that the catfish always lived."

As someone who obviously loves and respects nature, Kratz is torn about her choice of polyester casting resin as a medium. She's acutely aware that it's a highly toxic material antithetical to the natural objects so critical to her life and work. The substance, to which an organic peroxide is added as a catalyst, is, oddly enough, the same stuff used to make all those tacky scorpion paperweights sold as souvenirs to tourists and swap-meet shoppers.

Its fumes are so toxic that the artist was forced to stop using the material for a year so she could recover from allergies aggravated by the resin's noxious vapors. During that period, Kratz experimented with other media for her sculptural pieces, even whipping up batches of hard candy in the kitchen in a vain attempt to effect the aged, rocklike appearance so distinctive to her work. "I loved the idea of the hard candy, especially since it's so readily available, but the appearance of time and permanence was not there. Those pieces usually turned to sugar," she says.

A well-ventilated casting booth now allows Kratz to continue working with resin. When she moves into her next studio, she plans to have a separate room where she can work in a clean-room "space suit" designed to seal out all traces of the substance from which she has created some of her most memorable pieces.

Maybe it's the childlike simplicity and an uncomplicated sincerity carried over from the artist's early dissection period that make Kratz's fully matured work so compelling.

Though initially engaging the viewer on a primordial, sensual level, the work from "In the Garden" also involuntarily dredges up subterranean memories long forgotten or neglected by all of us. Kratz's garden is a mystical place where the tendrils of growth and decay tangle and rub, where haunting specters appearing on the ground and in the night sky during moonlit walks glide easily past us. Through these tranquil pieces, the artist successfully invites us to join in "...looking for the soul of these natural things, the invisible part that lives on after they appear to die."

"Mayme Kratz: In the Garden" continues through Saturday, March 2, at Lisa Sette Gallery, 4142 North Marshall Way inScottsdale. For more details, see Art Exhibits listing in Thrills.

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Kathleen Vanesian