Kirk Maxson‘s hallway installation of pinned paper butterflies is now gone from San Francisco’s Eli Ridgway gallery, but hopefully he has more butterfly-installations planned for future exhibitions. Of all the Cut Paper Swarms of Butterflies that I’ve seen, his is the most diverse in species, and a great combination of light arrangement and somber content.
Butterflies are perhaps the biggest winners in the insect public relations contest, rivaling honeybees for instant connection and fondness in the heart of even the most committed entophobe. They move slowly, wear bright colors, and don’t bite or invade our homes or parasitize our young. Their scale-covered wings and gentle demeanor give them a free pass among humanity.
But in ancient cultures worldwide, butterflies have had a slightly more ambiguous relationship. Ancient Greeks, Aztecs and Aboriginal Australians are just a few of the many cultures who considered butterflies to be creatures associated with the dead, either escorting lost souls, or the departed themselves. Though it’s a fearful topic, involving lepidopterans with death is also an association of hope. Who wouldn’t want to envision the end of life’s struggle and toil as one lived in slow serene flight?
No better and more poignant way to depict this association than with Kirk Maxson’s installation ‘War’. Pages of war, violence, and anguish, pulled from color travel magazines, are cut and segmented into discrete butterfly silhouettes, whose flocking forms retain the original image. The various kinds of butterfly species are stunning- very few are repeated! Io moths, monarchs, skippers and blues all clustered in the halls of the gallery, allowing the eye to assemble a picture whose participants may be long dead themselves. Though we are implicated in viewing dispassionately such images through the safety of National Geographics, the butterflies are themselves blameless. They are as ever quiet couriers, dispersing strife into softness by the slow beat of their wings.