It’s a funny story how Art Donovan’s newest show, Odd Beauty: The Techno-Eccentric World of Steampunk Art, came to be at the Southampton Arts Center (SAC).
As Donovan told it when we spoke at the Dan’s Papers offices recently, he was in front of Morris Studio on Main Street in Southampton one December picking up art supplies when something caught his eye in the Christmas tree. He reached in and came out with a jumble of keys, the tag on which read 25 Jobs Lane—the Southampton Arts Center. He walked over and met Amy Kirwin, the Director of Programming.
He asked, “How would you like to host a blockbuster exhibition?” She laughed. They talked. It became clear he was no art world newbie blowing smoke. He sent along all the pertinent information, and Kirwin decided to put the show in the museum’s fall lineup. “It was a fortuitous occasion,” Donovan says. “But the thing about curating a steampunk exhibition,” he continued, “is that you have to keep your eyes open for opportunity.”
Donovan, himself an artist and custom lighting designer, admits he was “Aching for a new design style since the year 2000.” In early 2007, he came across the work of artist Rich Nagy. One piece in particular caught his eye. It was a keyboard “dressed up to look like it was made in the 19th century, but was, in fact, a modern computer keyboard.” Nagy was combining modern technology with the past. “I flipped when I saw it,” Donovan says.
He’d discovered steampunk, which was, at the time, composed of a relatively small group of artists working on the internet. “Steampunk was the first art genre ever created on the internet,” Donovan says.
He was so passionate about the look that he contacted the best steampunk artists all over the world. “This is how I became a curator,” he explains.
Steampunk had never been shown and he wanted to remedy that. The result was the world’s first steampunk show, in 2008, at the Hamptons Antique Galleries (now the Topping Rose House) in Bridgehampton, featuring what Donovan called the inventors of the genre. He then went on to curate the world’s first museum exhibitions of steampunk—a wildly successful show at Oxford University’s Museum of the History of Science in 2009 and another at Seoul National Museum in South Korea in 2014. “By taking it into the museums,” Donovan says, “it made it a bona fide art form different from retro futurism, assemblage art and all other forms. It has its own unique identity now.”
Steampunk might not be art form that you’re familiar with. Don’t worry—it’s relatively new (as art forms go) and you’re not the only one. “The actual word ‘steampunk’ was coined by the author K.W. Jeter in 1987,” Donovan explains.
Jeter recognized the genre of cyberpunk (think Bladerunner) was becoming increasingly popular. So what if cyberpunk got thrown into the past, he wondered? It would be like a technologically modern revolution taking place in the 19th century. “Think H.G. Wells’s time machine,” Donovan said. “A fantastic scientific device, dressed up and decorated like a gorgeous Victorian piece of furniture.”
Pressed for more examples, Donovan cites the movie Wild Wild West with Will Smith.” Also what’s called, in the interior design world, industrial styling (think old-timey filament light bulbs). At the end of the day, Donovan says, “You’ll know it when you see it.”
The show at SAC will feature 20 of the most renowned and influential Steampunk artists hailing from seven different countries—Japan, U.K., U.S., France, Canada, Australia, Switzerland. Donovan himself will have pieces on display, as will Clayton Orehek, a Long Island neon artist who made the glass tubing for the newest iteration of the iconic Sag Harbor neon, which is awaiting its new façade. Vianney Halter, a French-Swiss watchmaker who won the 2011 Best Watchmaker-Designer Prize of Switzerland—a country no stranger to timepiece design—will also be showing. World-renowned costume designer, Paige Gardner—whom Donovan calls “the virtual queen of costume design”—will not only be showing her most iconic steampunk designs, she’ll be giving a special lecture on the topic of costume design.
“There will be some pieces that will make your hair stand on end,” Donovan said of what to expect. “Things that you’ve never seen in your entire life—they’re breathtaking.”
See Odd Beauty at the SAC, 25 Jobs Lane, Southampton, September 23–November 12. An opening reception is scheduled for Saturday, September 23 from 5–7 p.m. For more info on the show visit southamptonartscenter.org.