If you’ve been to Comic-Con at any time over the past decade, watched post-Akira anime by Katsuhiro Otomo; read any of the triumvirate of fabulist writers James Blaylock, Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter; or seen people wearing Victorian or Edwardian costumes, name-dropping H.G. Wells and carrying anachronistic weaponry that looks like it could blow a hole through a Zeppelin, then you already know what steampunk is.
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, then you probably have more of a life than I do . . . and I mean that in a bad way. Go read a book sometime.
Inspired by the anniversary of the first trans-Atlantic flight, Box Gallery co-owner/curator Johnny Sampson has assembled six artists presenting works in the style of steampunk, with a focus on the theme of flight. Only a few of the pieces in “The Icarus Paradox” hit both of these targets—some just one, several not at all—but Sampson’s idiosyncratic eye for quality at least provides something interesting to look at.
Digital artist Brian Giberson’s work seems very much a throwback to Victorian times. With references to Wells and Jules Verne, the images would feel right at home in the pages of Alan Moore’s graphic-novel series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Based on the tiny, fanciful mock history he’s posted for his Society of Crypto-Entomology series of insect studies—with members such as Aleister Crowley and Charles Darwin—I’d venture to say he doesn’t need Moore at all and should try to tackle a narrative project all his own. The studies take insects we’re familiar with—dragonflies, beetles and butterflies here called Dragoon Fly, Locksmith Beetle and Foglighter Fly—and replaces portions of their bodies with cannons, metal joints and stained-glass wings. The artist’s painstaking details reveal he has imagination to spare, but what’s missing is seeing the images in 3D form. Despite their beauty, they’re flat and sized too small to reveal all of the visual gems Giberson has layered into them. The same problem occurs with his collages of Hellenic sculptures, clocks and gargoyles in Time and Protection: The works end up being not as beautiful as the hand-decorated frames containing them.
You can, however, see all of the details in his three larger pictures. Raygun is exactly what it says it is. I appreciated the carnival-sideshow-styled poster Airship. Its rocket-fueled galleon floating over Eqyptian pyramids in a purple sky studded with stars is the stuff of which dreams are made. “Join an Aerocrew,” says the faded headline of his Jetpack, a sepia-toned recruitment poster that’s a sexier variation of the Rocketeer movie poster, Giberson’s female rocketeer dressed in a metal, leather and spike-heeled jackboot version of a World War I pilot.
Ted von Heiland’s mixed-media robotic Pieta, Borgs Don’t Cry is more cyber- than steampunk, with one cyborg (a gear halo behind its head) cradling the battered body of another. As visually fascinating as that is, the mourning figure is built from the body of a clarinet, and the two are attached to the body of an electric guitar, its neck pointing downward. The guitar’s strings are snapping and wrapping themselves around the two figures, as if further embracing them. The Day the Music Died, for sure. His painting Up From the Ashes is less-fiercely poignant but has a gentleness about it one wouldn’t necessarily expect from the genre. A robotic sprite plays with a white dog, while behind and all around her is an electronic wasteland of JumboTrons, faint shadows of corporate logos floating in the darkness. That she has turned her back to the decay, choosing companionship (albeit animal) over soulless technology, seems appropriate.
Another halo—a clock with Roman numerals—circles silent-film actress Louise Brooks’ signature bob haircut in Travis Raymond’s painting Jeez Louise. The painter doesn’t nail her beauty, even though she’s topless and dispassionately pointing a gun at the viewer, her red fingernails glowing as they tighten around the trigger. What he does get is Brooks’ agelessness: Raymond uses a weathered, vintage picture frame to hold the picture and uses a crackle paint on the canvas’ background, so that while Brooks’ body is smoothly pristine, the background surrounding her is textured and riven with cracks.
Japanese artist Hiromi Takizawa’s work has nothing to do with steampunk, but her sweetly innocent, even childlike mounted glass balloons fit with the flight motif.
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The most successful piece is painter Glenn Arthur’s stunning steampunk pinup triptych The Captain, the Co-Pilot and the Navigator. Background gears, planes and tiny hummingbirds wearing goggles adorn the canvases, with the three gorgeous women all skimpily clad, their half-vests or sleeveless shirts exposing just the right amount of tattooed flesh caressed by a palette of warm yellows, oranges and browns. What’s refreshing about the artist’s work is that his women aren’t dim-witted sexpots. While “Fuck Me” is the look on all three’s faces, there is power behind each of the women’s eyes. They have thoughts and background stories, and while some of those thoughts are about you, guys, they’re not all about you. They have better things to do.
I can’t wait to see the movie.
“The Icarus Paradox: A Steampunk Commemoration” at the Box Gallery, 765 Saint Clair St., Ste. B, Costa Mesa, (714) 724-4633; www.boxboxbox.com. Open Tues.-Sat., noon-8 pm. Through Nov. 5. Free.
This review appeared in print as "Fly Girls: Steampunk takes flight at Box Gallery."