And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
nd Eternity in an hour
— From “Auguries of Innocence” by William Blake
The new Butch Anthony exhibition at the Albany Museum of Art, Art, Nature, and Intertwangleism, may at first glance appear a panorama of animal life, removed from its original disposition, reconstituted, and made into art.
Anthony, a self-trained artist who lives just across the border in Alabama, is the quiet, humble creator/proprietor of his own drive-thru arts destination, The Museum of Wonder. What underlies this show is a sort of supermarket principle of object lessons in humanity’s power over nature, and nature’s final word over human existence.
Like Blake, Anthony penetrates simultaneously into the micro-worlds of Mother Nature and the nether regions of the human soul. The initial appearance of this show overwhelms the senses like the riotous excess of an old-timey carnival. Here, though, you will see no barkers or pitchmen. This is no sideshow of human frailties. Rather, this art exhibition soars as a song of praise for what the German romantic poet Novalis would call a thoughtful and unconstrained study of the wonders that exist all around us.
You see, Anthony is a genius in seeing the grand pageant of life, the totality of human effort to dominate, classify, and order the natural world into its scientific taxonomies. Yet, the artist provides entertaining visual cues of humanity’s obsolescence, with cartoon bones painted over the stoic visages of 19th century family photographs and paintings. Here we are reminded as homo sapiens, animals ourselves, we, too, are finite, innocent. This show pushes us to inspect nature, art, and their intermingling as we throw ourselves into the mix. For are we not the sum of the miscellany of the biological, the artistic, and the unresolved?
This exhibition brings together an array of exhibition design techniques, from salon style fine art display and natural dioramas to abstraction (deer bone blanket) and the supermarket principle of showing multiples of the same artifact together (starfishes, butterflies, taxidermy raptors). This lost and found of the organic, the decayed, and the kitsch, transformed into finished art works, the pinnacle of human expression, is a spectacular creative endeavor.
Anthony’s media ranges from the cleaned and bleached bones from his specially-made roadkill “bone pens”—literally the bones of his work!—to the finely applied pigments of oil paint on thrown away “art” and family photographs. Here the whole world and vestiges of its inhabitants are made visible, what the late 18th century Deists would call The Great Chain of Being, in which nothing is extinct and everything has a role to play.
I enjoin you to attend this spectacle, to insert yourself on this continuum of the theater of absurd, of life and death, from the most delicate of assemblages (think artist Joseph Cornell with microscope and tweezers) to elaborate tributes to giants in the fields of evolution and nature, Darwin and Audubon.
This dissemination of knowledge parody early Renaissance cabinets des curieux, Wunderkammer, or perhaps better said, Cabinets of Wonder. From tiny diorama to grotesque monsters made from chair legs and animal bones, this show plays an important role in connecting the creative impulse underlying the human and natural worlds.
Yes, there are a lot of bodies on display here. We seem to be missing only the Dodo, the Passenger Pigeon, and a nubbly mastodon tooth. But unlike the object lessons of evolutionary theory of 19th century world’s fairs, Anthony spares nothing and no one in this appraisal of mortality, smiling at the order that comes from disorder or, in this case, Alabama.
We are grateful to Butch Anthony and his cheeky visions and his gentle corrective: we, too, can see worlds in a grain of sand, even hold infinity in the palm of our hand, and what a pleasure this can be.