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Steampunk Art And Design Exhibits In The Hamptons

Originally Posted: August 01, 2008


"Thin White Duke Close-Up Of Entire Crown" by Art Donovan. All photos courtesy of artist

Bridgehampton - A new art medium known as "Steampunk" is on exhibit at the Hamptons Antique Galleries at 2546 Montauk Highway in Bridgehampton from August 16 through August 24. Conceived and curated by Art and Leslie Donovan of Donovan Design in Southampton, the exhibition includes both national and international artists, among them Donovan, 'Datamancer' Nagy, Jake Von Slatt, Bethany Peters, Sam Van Olffen, Steve Erenberg, Tatjana van Vark, Jos De Vink, I-Wei Huang (Crab Fu), Hunter Herrick, Eric Freitas, Suzanne Rachel Forbes and Roger Wood.

Artist And Designer Art Donovan.

Donovan stated that "Steampunk is a new style of art and design that, in less than a year, has become so wildly popular on the internet that it has spawned an actual philosophy and life-style among it's fans. The genre has its literary roots in 1990s sci-fi novels but now boasts a worldwide (albeit, small) group of passionate artists who have connected with one another to give the genre an actual physical form."

The actual label "steampunk" originated in the 1980s as a twist on the term "cyberpunk" to describe an art and design movement that incorporates mostly found and repurposed objects that are usually mechanical and grounded in the Steam Age and antique locomotion.

Influenced greatly by literary works from H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Mary Shelley and even Mark Twain, as well as films such as "Brazil" and "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" Steampunk artists tend to focus on Victorian and Edwardian era technology where the Industrial Revolution has begun but electricity has not yet been invented.

Elements such as, but not limited to, gas lamps, cogs, spring-loaded gadgets, clockwork devices and engines are among the items artisans employ to represent their art and design. Donovan adds that "The prerequisites of Steampunk design are the 'humane' and natural materials of 19th century technology, such as solid hardwoods, brass, hand-applied rivets and exposed gears and workings that are understandable and self-evident in their operation and function."

Donovan mentioned that "Steampunk is not considered 'Outsider Art,' but rather a tightly focused art movement whose practitioners faithfully borrow design elements from the grand schools of architecture, science and design and employ a strict philosophy where the physical form must be as equally impressive as the function. It is, therefore, thoroughly contemporary. Steampunk seeks to re-define the aesthetics and usage of modern technology and in doing so, creates a romantic new standard for decorative and industrial arts."

"Steampunk Clock" by Art Donovan.

Donovan further elaborates that "These Steampunk creations may be mechanical, sculptural or purely decorative. The designs may be practical or completely fanciful. Whatever the application, the art celebrates a time when new technology was produced, not by large corporations, but by talented and independent artisans and inventors."

Donovan answered a few questions regarding Steampunk and the upcoming exhibition:

How did you become involved in Steampunk and what does it mean to you?

Art Donovan: I discovered Steampunk purely by accident on the internet last August when I was researching design styles. After seeing so much mid-century modern design on the net, I was stunned when I came across such a unique style that so boldly incorporated Victorian and "techno-centric" influences. Seeing that the creators and fans of Steampunk were equally divided among men and women, young and older alike, I realized that the genre had a surprisingly broad appeal. That is what really lit the fuse for me creatively.

Who would you consider to be the historical practitioners of the Steampunk genre?

"Parrish Carriage Lantern" by Art Donovan.

AD: Like all serious endeavors, Steampunk certainly has it's heroes: The scientists, philosophers, authors, inventors and adventures of the Victorian and late Colonial ages. H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Mary Shelly, Madame Curie, Tesla, Edison and Ben Franklin are ranked as the most inspiring to the genre. It's their spirit of individuality and sheer ingenuity that has the greatest appeal for Steampunk artists. Steampunks revere the creative renegade and have a special fondness for all those who were considered "mad" scientists in their own times.

What makes Steampunk different from industrial design?

AD: Much of Steampunk design offers an alternative to contemporary industrial design. The flash point for Steampunks was certainly the i-Phone and i-Pod. Here we have two of the most significant and truly innovative technological innovations in modern history and, ironically, they're packaged in dull, generic plastic boxes. Steampunks believe that if these devices were created during the age of the Victorians, they would have been given a style and structure befitting their potential and greatness. It's really about dignifying the object, rather than creating a structure that belies it's importance. But since Steampunk covers so many different areas of art and design, it would be inaccurate to simply call it a new version of the industrial arts.

Why do both literary and film influences play such an important role in the Steampunk movement?

"Siddhartha Pod-Looking Up To Bottom Deck" by Art Donovan.

AD: It's because of the "fantasy" element in film and literature. The all important, "What If?" of science fiction that has been so influential in the creation of real world technologies. Steampunk creatively re-imagines the past to provide an alternative visual image and attitude that can work with contemporary life.

Of course, there is always that romance about the Victorian age that has a genuine attraction for Steampunks. By that, I mean an evocative, cultured and humane attitude, (which is a rare thing in contemporary life and media), but it's important to know that Steampunk it not sunshine and flowers all the time. The darker side of the Victorian age, evident in the great moral messages of Mary Shelly and Bram Stokker play a really important part in Steampunk as an art form.

There are as many influences for Steampunk as there are creators and applications. I know this all sounds a little dry and academic, but one great truth for the Steampunks artists is the pure fun of designing and building so freely - without a care in the world for what's "in and out" of style.

Are there architectural influences as well?

AD: Sure. The classical architectural forms and the use of ornamentation, revered and practiced in the 1800s, are plainly evident in much of Steampunk art and design.

Steampunk celebrates ornamentation. Steampunks love it! In ornamentation, one can see the human qualities of a work. Of course, Sleek Modernism is gorgeous, but I believe it's time that a lush and masterful use of ornate and evocative embellishments was revived in the fine and industrial arts. Although there is no official Steampunk Manifesto, (we leave the "official" manifestos to a much stricter kind of artist) the essence of Steampunk philosophy is the direct opposite of Van De Rohes', "Form follows function." Steampunks believe that the form must be as equally impressive as the function. It's the effort of ornamentation that one puts into an object that lends importance and grace to the work and demonstrates its value to the user.

Why this group of particular artists?

Siddhartha Pod-Looking Up Towards Top Deck" by Art Donovan.

AD: They are the very first and most famous artists in the genre. The original innovators! If you do a quick Google search on Steampunk, it yields some amazing results about these artists.

This exhibition is the first time that any of these artists have been assembled in one venue. Some of the artists are showing and offering their work for the very first and ONLY time.

Jos De Vink, from the Netherlands designs and produces Steampunk Sterling Engines out of solid brass. The beautifully designed engines are powered only by tea-candles. De Vinks' work is the most compelling and important examples of kinetic art that I've ever seen. Jake Von Slatt and Datamancer are the originals that set the internet on fire with this style. Suzanne Forbes captures the purest Steampunk aesthetic in oils on canvas. I-Wie Huang creates actual steam-powered Robots. Sam Van Olffen's digital work is nothing short of astounding in it's creativity and execution. Tatjana Van Vark from the Netherlands created her own, working oscilloscope at the age of 14. Great local artists, like Bethany Peters and Hunter Herrick, are exhibiting their Steampunk art in this exhibition for the very first time. Artist Eric Freitas hand-crafts his exquisite, hand-made clocks out of solid metal. He even creates the movement pieces of the dial by hand. They simply must be seen to be believed.

I must tell you, that after 32 years of being a professional artist and designer, I have never been so genuinely impressed with an art form and it's practitioners. After creating my Steampunk lighting, I was compelled to bring all of these brilliant people together in one show.

Do you consider Steampunk to only represent art that serves a pragmatic function, such as lamps, clocks, or furniture?

AD: No. Steampunk, at its heart, illustrates a desire to revisit and remodel all of the best things that our past had offered. A Steampunk design can be either functional or purely decorative. It really doesn't matter. The important thing is the emotional response that the art evokes.

What is the aesthetic of Steampunk to you?

AD: Steampunk represents the age of individual innovation. It's a rekindling of the age of wonder, new sciences and accomplishments - an age where great innovation could be achieved by dedicated, private individuals - as opposed to large corporations (or large corporate-sponsored artists for that matter).

What do you hope the Steampunk movement will relay in terms of art and design?

"Mr. Peanutski" by Art Donovan.

AD: Steampunk strongly implies that it's perfectly acceptable to buck the contemporary trends. That may sound trite, but since we are so inundated with the modern and post-modern aesthetic, it's actually a very bold thing to do. I personally can't wait to see what it will grow into, as it's adopted and enhanced by new artists and applied to all manner of design endeavors.

What is it like to curate your first art exhibition?

AD: It's as exhausting as it is thrilling. For the artists from France, The Netherlands and Japan, I had to email them in their own language. Thank goodness for Google "Translate." If it were not for that, I would not have been able to communicate with them at all.

This exhibition is being held at the Hamptons Antique Galleries in Bridgehampton because it's a magnificent venue for this kind of event. But it's a "bear" of a project in terms of the scope and variety of the art being displayed. I think many will come to see if I have actually curated a cohesive, informative and original exhibition. I'm working very hard to come somewhat close to that.

Staging Places of Southampton, the staging and design company which is run by my wife, Leslie Tarbell Donovan, is designing the exhibition space. We originally had planned on a small show, but it's grown so much in the last month that we had to actually increase the room needed for the event. If all goes well, we may consider taking this exhibition on the road.



Eileen Casey spent many years working in the television and music industries in New York City on the "ABC In Concert" weekly series, as well as several prime time network and cable television specials. An award-winning journalist, editor, and artist, and former Editor-in-Chief of Hamptons.com, she enjoys staying warm in Charleston and cool in the Hamptons.






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