Culture- ART FEATURE- Wax works: Saunders layers it on

Over the past few years, I've compiled a mental list of local artists whose work I'd like to own if my ship ever comes in (alas, I'm pretty sure it sank). The list is shorter than you might think, although it has just one criterion: the artist must make me want to keep looking.

Painter Martha Saunders, whose exhibition "Oscillating Vistas" is currently on view in the upstairs gallery of Les Yeux du Monde, is one artist who manages to mesmerize me. The longer I look at her large abstract works, the more I find of interest.

Saunders creates her multi-media compositions using an encaustic technique that involves working with pigmented wax. The medium allows her to build up milky layers that offer glimpses of underlying elements– sometimes shadowy marks and shapes, other times snippets of photographs. Occasionally she scratches through or removes areas of the upper surface to reveal jolts of vivid color. 

According to Saunders, the experience of walking inspired the pieces in the current show, and Paula Rau's accompanying essay points out that a "horizon" bisects each work. To name it a "horizon," however, almost introduces too much specificity, because the beauty of Saunders' paintings is the way they invite the viewer to wander through their meditative spaces, discovering personal meanings that shift and change the longer one looks.

Saunders achieves her effects by mixing geometric elements– spheres, rectangles, grids of circles– with more organic and diffuse-edged areas of color. Often she adds subtle punctuation via freeform, scribble-like marks. In the richly textured and hued "Word=Body," excised circles in the upper left reveal a searing blue beneath burnished red. Saunders balances this area with raised rounds of ochre wax floating across the same blue on the lower right. Meanwhile, an almost imperceptible column of scribbled circles descends through the center of the piece under filmy layers. 

Less successful are Saunders' smaller works on paper, which have a patchwork-like quality. Here the contributing elements are more defined and less harmonious, and the rough texture of the paper simply intensifies the cacophony of the compositions.

But spending time with Saunders' molten paintings is like taking a visual walk deep in thought; ephemeral memories– a flash of an architectural interior– coexist with fleeting impressions of the passing world– the shape of a bird or a tangle of barbed wire. Her pieces are multi-layered and complex, and I never tire of looking at them.

Les Yeux du Monde shows Martha Saunders' exhibition, "Oscillating Views," through October 8. 115 S. First St. 973-5566.