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Sep 19, 2017 10:27 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Steampunk Exhibition Displayed This Fall At Southampton Arts Center

Sep 20, 2017 10:06 AM

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Art Donovan was simultaneously winded and invigorated.

“Can I call you right back?” he heaved into the phone, his gloves muffling the speaker. “Right now, I’m in my studio, rolling out the work of Sam van Olffen, from France, and he’s got these giant sheets of artwork that are tightly wound into rolls and placed in mailing tubes. So when you roll them out, it’s, like, oh my God, they’re like springs!”

He exhaled sharply. “It’s fantastic!”

When he hopped back on the line, his enthusiasm was only heightened.

“Okay, okay. I’m ready,” he said, giddy. “Let’s talk steampunk.”

For those who may not know, steampunk, Mr. Donovan explained, is a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy—think Jules Verne or H.G. Wells—that combines Victorian elements with modern-day or futuristic technology to create a specific style of design that looks like it may have existed in the 19th century.

Visual cues may include: an octopus, a top hat with a pair of goggles, an ornate corset with mechanical gears, or, most commonly, anything to do with clockwork.

“Horology looms very large in steampunk legend,” Mr. Donovan said, referring to the study of measuring time. “Basically, to identify something as steampunk, if it’s a strange-looking object that looks like an antique, but you know it is a modern device made by contemporary artists, chances are it was a steampunk artist who did it.”

Mr. Donovan has assembled 20 such artists from around the globe, including Mr. van Olffen, to show their work in “Odd Beauty: The Techno-Eccentric World of Steampunk,” opening Saturday, September 23, at the Southampton Arts Center—its finger right on the pulse.

“There’s a ton of steampunk artwork out there right now. I mean, it’s growing so much,” Mr. Donovan said recalling that in 2007 there were only three or four pages of results when searching for steampunk images on Google. “Now, there are tens and hundreds of thousands, and you see a lot of great steampunk art and artists.”

The longtime lighting designer is now among them, since stumbling across steampunk a decade ago and incorporating it into his work immediately.

It lit a fire within him, he said.

“When I found steampunk, it was like a perfect storm of influences for me,” he said. “It played into my love for science fiction and all the things I grew up with as a kid—because I was a big science nut when I was kid, still am. There was something about this old-timey, futuristic science that really got my goat. It just got under my skin and I applied it to my love for lighting. It was, like, ‘Hey, you just found your perfect inspiration that you didn’t even know you wanted to do.’ You could really mash up a lot of other concepts into what would be known as one genre.”

Therein lies the beauty of steampunk, he explained: It doesn’t just exist on a fun, visual level. Delving deeper, there is a beautiful yet odd handmade craftsmanship to it. The pieces are not “terribly egocentric,” he said. Instead, they become transcendent.

“There’s a lot of layers to it, and the more you get into it, the more you see,” he said. “There are themes of spiritualism, reactions and feelings about the industrial age. It’s non-political, which is a wonderful thing and a great respite from what’s going on.”

He turned his attention back to Mr. van Olffen.

“Now that steampunk is getting so popular and going in so many different directions, when you see Sam’s work, you totally understand where the genre is coming from,” he said. “He brings a French couture attitude to his images. Even when they’re really fantastic and dark, dystopian cities and futures he envisions, there’s something humorous about it.

“It’s kind of like what they do at a Paris runway. As serious as they are, they always throw you a little curveball and bring it down to a humane level—and he’s the only artist I’ve ever seen do that. And he’s very, very French, which is delightful. They just have a way of twisting it.”

“Odd Beauty: The Techno-Eccentric World of Steampunk,” curated by Art Donovan, will open on Saturday, September 23, at the Southampton Arts Center with a public reception from 5 to 7 p.m. The exhibition will remain on view through November 12. Mr. Donovan will lead a gallery tour on Sunday, October 8, at 1 p.m. Gallery hours are Thursday to Sunday, noon to 6 p.m. For more information, call 631-283-0967 or visit southamptonartscenter.org.

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