Visual Arts

Watery Awakening

Don't expect to see the luminous resin shrines and mysterious opalescent spheres for which Valley artist Mayme Kratz previously has been known when you go to see "Waking in the Dark," an exhibition of Kratz's most current work at Scottsdale's Lisa Sette Gallery.

The only stylistic remnant of her older artwork is in the gallery's second room. It's a large block of crazed, crystalline resin, titled "Garden Cube #4," in which the artist has encased a spiny barrel cactus. Perhaps it's Kratz's carefully cloaked way of letting us know that she has left the comfort of her older sculptural forms for the unpredictability of working in the entirely new configurations on display in the Sette show.

A longtime fixture of the local contemporary art scene, Mayme Kratz appears to have abandoned the cast-resin houses she often has referred to as reliquaries -- repositories of earthy memories whose fragments are captured in perpetual, indestructible translucence. And gone are the crystal balls into which she would artfully embed bits and pieces of found nature for us to gaze at, as if they magically held predictions for the future.

Though she still uses highly toxic polyester resin as her medium of choice, Kratz no longer fashions it into see-through soil into which she sows diminutive, dormant life forms for the viewer to discover. Now, the artist seems to be presenting that same synthetic substance as water -- or maybe nourishment -- for the natural flotsam and jetsam she finds on a daily basis and incorporates into her pieces.

While recognizable form still plays a small part in her most recent output, Kratz has moved from the three-dimensional to the two-dimensional -- from the sculptural to the planar. The only evidence of her continuing allegiance to 3-D is Exile, a large installation that suggests a small armada of resin boats "floating" on three brushed stainless steel tables taking up the center of the main gallery space.

The boats are delicately tinted, like semiprecious stones, in shades of smoky topaz, citrine, aquamarine and peridot. Peer into their gossamer interiors and you can barely make out what is frozen inside them: a thorny rose stem, a gigantic moth, a corkscrew-shaped piece of coral that looks like a worm, a writhing lizard caught in a frenzied dance, a seedpod that looks like a giant, hairy paramecium propelling itself through liquid space -- even an odd, plastic alien head is captured for eternity in one of the boats.

There are many meanings suggested by Kratz's boats. Are they classic symbols of the womb, the cradle, the concept of transformation? Do they signify adventure, exploration, the idea of setting out rudderless on the sea of life? Or is there a more ominous undercurrent to the boats in Exile? The boat plied by Charon, the gristled, old boatman of Greek mythology, in which he ferries the souls of the dead across the River Styx to Hades, also pops to mind. The ambiguity of each small ship's contents is what pulls Kratz's installation from the realm of the obvious and propels it into the calm, open waters of the enduring.

But it's her new resin "paintings" lining the gallery walls that represent a real step in the artist's aesthetic and conceptual evolution. They are a visual realization that the outward structure of her work is less important than what is eternally imprisoned inside -- and the unarticulated narratives it elicits.

From a distance, Kratz's panels look like any other painted canvases. A closer look reveals that they are made of polished, pigmented resin containing a number of mysterious objects for us to ponder. Many conjure a sense of peering into a shallow seaside tide pool or a cloudy nighttime sky -- even into the human body itself -- rather than the dirt-filled gardens so integral to Kratz's past work.

In Gathering and Closing, poppy seedpods resemble limpets or barnacles clinging to the corroded surface of a rusty barge. Where each pod touches, a halo has magically formed. An entirely different sensation is created in Curious Wounds II, in which the same small pods are arranged in a swirling spiral, their hairy insides sliced open to suggest gaping wounds in a blood-stained sea or perhaps ritual scarification performed on flesh by some primitive tribe.

In Echo, a panel of rust-tinged resin comes alive with strange, striped spheres that end up being tiny fungus pods, though they look like empty Lilliputian eggshells. Veins of color snake through the resin, while darkened spots loom in the background. An occasional bubble scoots through the placental atmosphere holding the pod-eggs, which creates a sensation of being inside a womb. Similar fungus pods take on a completely different presence in The Appearance of Light, a large resin panel in which the fungal growths transmute into stars glowing in a cloudy night sky through which wispy threads of what might be dandelion wiggle podward -- like sperm wiggling toward hapless ova.

The artist's compelling need to dissect and reveal the interior mechanisms of existence continues in Vanishing Song, a diptych of contrasting darkness and light. In the blackness of the left panel, tiny skeletal remains of a bird and a cracked bird's egg levitate weightlessly; in the right panel, a cloud of yellow canary feathers seems to explode around a tiny avian skull.

Not all of Kratz's resin panels are as successful, however. Several fail to escape the prosaic reality of her chosen found objects and become mired in their own lack of subtlety. In Red Song, for example, a mass of segmented mesquite pods embedded in resin tinted to conjure blood misses the mark, never quite ascending to the poetic level to which the artist constantly aspires. In In the Quiet, a panel containing dismembered butterfly wings in inky brown resin is pitted against a moth pupa and shards of larval moth stages drowned in a luscious red resin. Uninspired, they are what they are, never proceeding any further than their ordinary import.

Mayme Kratz can never be accused of being stuck in the quagmire of repetition; she continues to slowly unfurl like the flower petals occasionally sprinkled through some of her latest endeavors. In the end, the work in "Waking in the Dark" demonstrates the artist's willingness to brave untested waters without the safety of the forms with which she has long been associated.

"Waking in the Dark" continues through Saturday, June 24, at the Lisa Sette Gallery, 4142 North Marshall Way in Scottsdale. For more information, call 480-990-7342.