Just when it seemed that the art world had abandoned all sense of value and direction to the money-obsessed, along came artist Marshall Hill.

Hill works in butterflies.

In a small shop in SoHo called Mariposa, the Butterfly Gallery (128 Thompson St.), Hill has collected butterflies from all over the world, mounted them in plastic boxes and hung them on the walls. The effect is eerie and breathtaking. Brilliant iridescent "morphos" from Brazil swoop up the side of one wall and down the next in groupings never found in nature. Zebra-striped butterflies seemingly flutter up another. Electronic music accompanies the exhibition.

Unlike the naturalist, who values butterflies for their rarity and catalogues them by species, Hill mixes his specimens freely, artfully arranging them by design or color.

Each of the 22 groupings has an inventive title -- "Punk" for a rare moth with bright black and Day-Glo wings, "Fuego" for brilliant red specimens, "Stranger in the Night" for the zebra-striped butterflies.

Hill's partner, Greg Kammerer, reports that business has been brisk. Part of the attraction, it seems, are the prices, which range from $30 for a single morphos to $2,700 for an entire wall arrangement of the iridescent blue morphos.

"We're getting people who have never bought a butterfly before in their lives," says Kammerer. "They're buying butterflies instead of a poster or painting or wall hanging. Psychiatrists are among our best collectors. I suppose they find them restful."

All of the butterflies used by Hill in his artworks are farmed in cages on butterfly plantations in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia. Butterflies live a maximum of 30 days. When they "drop," as a butterfly death is called, they're picked up with forceps to preserve the wings.

Some animal lovers object to Hill's use of butterflies. But he resents being compared to what Kammerer jokingly calls " 'the Frank Perdue of the art world.' I don't slaughter butterflies. I don't eat butterflies. The butterfly, see, only has one purpose for humans -- beauty."

But is it art?

"We don't paint or sculpt the butterfly, true," says Kammerer. "Nature has made a wonderful artistic decision in this case. It is a beautiful and uplifting sight."