‘Odd Beauty’ Illuminates Steampunk with Special Programs at SAC

Paige Gardner in costume
Paige Gardner in costume, Photo: Courtesy Paige Gardner/Art Donovan

Are you craving something new? Something macabrely beautiful unlike anything you’ve ever seen before? Something to spice up off-season Hamptons living? If so, than boy oh boy does the Southampton Arts Center (SAC), on Jobs Lane in Southampton, have just the thing for you! Their new exhibition, Odd Beauty: The Techno-Eccentric World of Steampunk Art, is on display through November 12.

Steampunk—an art genre in which the works resemble what would happen if the Victorian age underwent a modern day technological revolution—was not invented by this exhibition’s curator, Southampton’s Art Donovan, though he was the first to exhibit work from the genre in a museum setting.

The artists gather
The “Odd Beauty” artists gather on opening night, Photo: Oliver Peterson

Donovan, who is a lighting designer by trade, was himself looking for something new when he discovered a small steampunk community online in 2007. One piece in particular caught his eye: A keyboard “dressed up to look like it was made in the 19th century, but was, in fact, a modern computer keyboard,” Donovan tells us. “I flipped when I saw it.”

He would go on to curate three steampunk exhibitions: one at the Hamptons Antique Galleries (now the Topping Rose House) in Bridgehampton in 2008; another—the world’s first museum exhibition of steampunk—a wildly successful show at Oxford University’s Museum of the History of Science in 2009; and one more at the Seoul National Museum in South Korea in 2014.

Odd Beauty, Donovan’s fourth exhibition, features 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 has pieces on display, including “Siddhartha Pod,” a strange clock/chandelier/teleportation device combination. Clayton Orehek, the Long Island neon artist who made the glass tubing for the newest iteration of the iconic Sag Harbor Cinema’s neon sign, which is awaiting its new façade, has pieces on display honoring Nikola Tesla. Donovon says excitedly, “Steampunks are mad about Tesla.”

Nikola Tesla portrait by Clayton Orehek
Nikola Tesla portrait by Clayton Orehek, Photo: Oliver Peterson

Vianney Halter, a French-Swiss watchmaker who won the 2011 Best Watchmaker-Designer Prize of Switzerland—a country no stranger to timepiece design—is also showing, as is world-renowned costume designer Paige Gardner—whom Donovan calls “the virtual queen of costume design.” Gardner hosted a special talk at the museum, to great fanfare, on October 7.

You also won’t want to miss the somewhat disturbing dolls of Todd Sloane, the adding machine/typewriter/keyboard/speaker system machines of Dave Duros or Eric Freitas’s clocks, which are what Dali might have made had he been a steampunk.

When explaining the history of steampunk as a genre, Donavan says, “The more mechanical and weird it looked, the better. It didn’t have to look clean, slick and modern.” That about sums it all up.

Vianney Halter
Vianney Halter with his watches, Photo: Barbara Lassen

Odd Beauty also sprinkles in some related programming throughout its run, in order for the steam-curious to firmly grasp the scope of the genre. There was a screening of the 2015 documentary film Tower to the People—Tesla’s Dream at Wardenclyffe Continues on Friday, October 13, followed on Sunday by Thomas Dolby, Musical Director of the annual TED Conference, who gave a talk and live musical performance titled “She Blinded Me with Science.”

Back by popular demand, Donovan is leading a second curator’s tour of Odd Beauty on Saturday, November 4 at 1 p.m.

“There will be some pieces that will make you hair stand on end,” Donovan says of what to expect. “Things that you’ve never seen in your entire life—they’re breathtaking.”

"Bottom the Donkey" by Tom Banwell
“Bottom the Donkey” by Tom Banwell, Photo: Barbara Lassen

At the end of the day, many of the pieces on display simply defy explanation. But, like the 300-plus people who attended the exhibition’s opening night, you’ll just have to go see it yourself. Did we mention it’s free?

The Southampton Arts Center, at 25 Jobs Lane in Southampton, is open Thursdays–Sundays noon–6 p.m. For more information and programming, call 631-283-0967 or visit southamptonartscenter.org.

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