Olfactory Orpheus

Anthony Alston

Anthony Alston bring an odiferous underworld to the mountain dwellers of Virginia City.

Anthony Alston bring an odiferous underworld to the mountain dwellers of Virginia City.

Photo By Nick Higman

Unlike the moribund birds inhabiting some of his earlier work, Anthony Alston flies freely through airspace just below the radar, gathering and making liberal use of every resource and medium at his disposal. Sculpture and found objects, selected with politic care, occupy his spacial canvases.

Alston’s latest mixed-media project, Orphic Excavations, was commissioned by the Carson City Arts Initiative (CCAI), and is now on display in the historic St. Mary’s Art Center in Virginia City. The art space is a four-story, brick structure, erected in 1875 by the Sisters of Charity and Father Patrick Manogue, and it originally served as a hospital.

Orphic Excavations is connected in more than the usual way to the gallery that houses it. CCAI has termed it a “site-specific” exhibition, since it is heavily informed by the geography and history of the site.

“The idea of decay and the passage of time tied in with some of the motifs I was working with,” says Alston. Atrophy, though, while an inseparable part of the artwork, is second to the displayed power of preservation.

Embalmed and cured, the exhibit transmits the feel of familiar antiquity found in ghost towns like Bodie: One wonders why everyone left in such a hurry and how they could abandon such lovely things. In one section, dark, corked bottles—some broken, others whole—lie scattered across the floor. Their arrangement is a carefully haphazard assemblage of artifactual evidence … silent and containing intimate details.

While he did not perform any pick-and-shovel excavation for the pieces, Alston says that his research at UNR’s Department of Special Collections helped build the foundation of the exhibition. A sense of the host building’s history imbues Orphic Excavations, but the tone of the works is not tethered by the parochial.

Orphic Excavations engages on more than a merely visual front; olfactory land mines make their presence known throughout. A weirdly pleasant, treacly aroma floats through the rooms, meshing with the physical presence of the installations and nudging the senses toward synesthesia.

Somewhat saliently, jars of wine included in the installation are the cause. They stand as allusions to the communion table and ostensibly evoke the history of the St. Mary’s building’s Catholic past. The fragrant fruits of spoilage were not intentional, according to Alston—just another one of art’s happy accidents.

Alston is circumspect when speaking about his work—a fact that is equal parts pleasant and mildly frustrating. His taciturn nature serves as a reminder that milking an artist for too many details is sometimes a fruitless and lazy endeavor. The work, after all, should do most of the talking.

“I’d like to think that I have a certain kind of experience, something that I draw from, but maybe I just have a bias,” said Alston. Fair enough.

Thoughtful intention and craftsmanship are evident in Alston’s work. Orphic Excavations renders itself gorgeous and ripe even in the corners, for interpretation.