Perpetual Motion: Automata Art Form Gets Inaugural Exhibition

Automata, a little-known art form which enjoyed great popularity during the 19th century, is making a comeback. Perpetual Motion: Contemporary Interpretations of Fine Art Automata will revive the genre when it holds an opening reception on April 16 at Heron Arts. Curated by Automata artist Tom Haney, the exhibition will display works by eleven national and international Automata creators.

Automata became popular because of the ability of the pieces to mimic life and generally dazzle people with movement. They fell out of favor with the advent of movies and more modern pastimes, but in the past two decades, more and more American artists have been creating them and a network of these particular people has formed thanks to the internet.

[jump] The selected artists in Perpetual Motion create work that depicts human and animal figures in animated motion to achieve moving vignettes. These artists maintains an aesthetic of nostalgia while presenting contemporary subject matter.

“I've always loved things that move, I love the old mechanical ways of doing things,” the Atlanta-based Haney told SF Weekly. “I've always wanted to be an artist, but took a detour studying Industrial Design in college and then worked as a freelance prop and model maker for 12 years.”

Eventually Haney began following his dream. “When I first made a kinetic, figurative piece back in 1994, I didn't know what I was making,” he recalls. “But I combined all the things I love to do – woodworking, wood carving, painting, aging, and of course, mechanical elements.” 

Haney's fascination with Automata began at a surprisingly young age. “When I was just 2 years old, my family went to the Wright Patterson Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio,” he said. “I remember it well because I got lost. Walking through the museum, we stopped at each exhibit. I remember being transfixed by a mechanical diorama of a man piloting a hot air balloon through a rolling landscape.”

An almost disastrous mishap caused that image to become embedded into Haney's memory. “After a time, I looked around and didn't see any of my family,” he said. “This was quite traumatic for me because I didn't know how I was going to get back to Cincinnati. I still remember that diorama and with this show, we hope to create a memorable experience for the people in attendance.”

Haney said that a good history of Automata could be found at Wikipedia. “I think there is a growing interest in this art form, and similar art forms, because it's something that most people can understand,” he explains. “People can see how a gear works, or a cam and lever, but they have no idea how a phone, computer, or a flat screen TV works. Automata, in it's simplest form, is something that many people feel they can wrap their heads around — and even head to the workshop, and try their hand at it. They, like myself, become fascinated by the movement created by a few simple devices.”

Haney describes Perpetual Motion “a collection of figurative, kinetic art pieces by some of best people working in the genre today.” He promises that the opening is going to be “amazing!”.

“Never before has such a group of talented artists, doing this kind of work full-time, been brought together,” he added. “There's quite a variety of work too — in style, size, complexity, and narrative.” 

Haney also points out that creating Automata is hard work. “Automata is a very labor intensive art form, and requires a lot of trial and error work,” he said. “This is pretty evident once you see the work. Each artist starts with a concept, but has to figure out how to make each and every mechanical element work properly. The pieces in our show are the results of weeks, if not months of work.

“The artists need to be multi-talented. “Sculpting, wood working, metal fabrication, sewing, painting, electronics, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera,” he said. “That's one of the things I like about it — I never get bored with just doing one thing.”

Perpetual Motion: Contemporary Interpretations of Fine Art Automata opens Saturday April 16, 6-9 p.m. and runs through May 14, at Heron Arts, 7 Heron St.,

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