the arts

As Above So Below: The Art of the Secret Society

This collection of arcana from various fraternal orders is seriously impressive

Reviewed by Wayne Alan Brenner, Fri., May 13, 2011

Arts Review

As Above So Below

Domy Books, 913 E. Cesar Chavez, 476-3699


Through June 9

Though I had heard vague rumors whispered in the halls of the nearby university, though certain signs within the Book of Faces had vouchsafed an indication of what a seeker might encounter deep within the demesne of Domy Books – its painted exterior rising vivid and boxy from a familiar position at the corner of Cesar Chavez and San Marcos Street, there on the long-storied Eastside of Austin, Texas – though, some armchair philosophers in their nightly cups might have suggested, I should have suspected what I would find therein, the eldritch magnificence of Domy's current exhibition was sufficient to send me reeling backward, stumbling toward the cashier's counter I had just passed inside.

"I ... I ...," I stammered to the handsome young fellow behind the counter. "I didn't expect ..."

"Yeah," responded this worthy, a grin spreading beneath the hairs of his neatly groomed mustache, "neither did we."

Bruce Lee Webb of the Webb Gallery in Waxahachie has organized "As Above So Below: The Art of the Secret Society," a gathering of the art and craft associated with the Freemasons and the Odd Fellows and a few other such clandestine fraternal orders, and he is presenting it in Domy's dedicated gallery. But here's the thing: This is not just a dozen or so framed examples of ancient documents or phantasmagorical paintings (which would have been impressive enough, certainly); this is a show of diverse and symbolic artifice as proffered by a one-man Smithsonian Institution.

There are a few ancient documents to be found, framed and unframed, among these arcane treasures, yes. But there are also, in the floor-to-ceiling display that covers three entire walls, large, silk banners hand-painted with various sigils and figures; strange wire-mesh masks for use in arcane scenarios; hand-carved wooden rods and swords and other such faux weaponry; a hooded robe embroidered with skulls and crossbones; towering columns and fluted pillars embellished with patterns suggestive of alchemical potency; and, in the center of the gallery, amid those pillars, a large device incorporating a sort of fabricated steed upon which learned officiants must have, during some unspeakable ceremony, ridden. Many of these sacred-to-someone items hail from the late 1800s or the early 1900s, yet most are in near pristine condition.

To sum our review bluntly: Webb isn't just fucking around with this shit; this is a serious and impressive collection. Domy Books has, for a while now, been a major local venue for important yet accessible exhibitions of human culture; this may well be its apotheosis.


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