‘Perpetual Motion’ Brings Automata Into Focus With Curator & Contemporary Artist Tom Haney

Heron Arts curator Noah Antieau has teamed up with Atlanta-based automata artist Tom Haney to present “Perpetual Motion: Contemporary Interpretations of Fine Art Automata”, opening Saturday April 16. The show is considered to be the first US exhibition of fine art automata. Automata, or figurative kinetic sculptures, are part of a somewhat obscure yet growing genre of contemporary art—a field in which creative vision and an understanding of mechanics go hand-in-hand.

The group of national and international artists brought together for “Perpetual Motion” have an aesthetic of nostalgia, combined with their own unique voice, narrative, and styles that they bring to this lesser-known genre, which first gained popularity in the 18th to early 20th centuries. 

Working with a range of materials, armed with much patience, and a wide set of skills from painting and traditional sculpture, to an understanding of physics and engineering, automata artists bring human and animal figures into animated motion, creating moving vignettes.

Co-curator and modern master of automata Tom Haney, was born in Cincinnati in 1962. He grew up an imaginative kid with an innate curiosity in how things worked—unafraid to take things apart, tinker, build, and create—all traits which led him onto a lesser-traveled path toward becoming the full-time artist he is today.

We spoke to Haney in anticipation of the show, to find out more about the artists he selected for this show, his past work with props and miniatures for film/TV, and tips for others looking to learn more about the world of automata.

I’ve been a fan of your work for quite some time and was excited to see your work here in November, as part of “The New Orleanian” at Heron Arts. I believe I had first seen your work in New York during Armory Art Week, or maybe Miami during Art Basel…where else have you shown your work and where are you currently based?
I’ve been showing my work with Red Truck Gallery, in New Orleans, since the beginning of 2013. Before that I was with Obsolete in Los Angeles. From 2000 to 2007, I exhibited my work at art fairs around the country. I am currently based in Atlanta. GA.

I read scholars had deemed the years 1848-1914 as the “Golden Age of Automata”, how is that this show will possibly be ‘the first gallery exhibition of contemporary fine art automata in the United States’? Why do you think it’s so rare to find this art form across the board?
One thing about automata is that it takes a very specific skill set, and many years to reach a certain level of proficiency. In the past, there were very few makers, and even today, very few artists doing [automata] full-time.

One thing about [automata], is it’s a very time-intensive art form. There is lots of trial and error. Lots of challenging work. A fellow automata artists told me when I was getting started, ‘Keep doing the mechanical stuff – not everyone can do it.’ I think one has to have a proficiency to do it. It can very frustrating even to the most accomplished artists. We’re always trying to push our skill set, to learn more, and to challenge ourselves. You have to be committed.

Half kidding and half serious…is it possible that the reason why there aren’t a lot of automata-focused art shows is because the shipping and set up process for this type of sculpture work would only be attempted by the bravest of curators? 
Shipping is sometimes an issue, but not a huge factor. Most pieces are fully assembled when sent, and I, and probably others in the field, build these pieces knowing that they are going to be shipped. Also I want a piece to run flawlessly for years to come, so I build them to last. It’s one thing to get a kinetic piece to work, it’s another to have it work for years and years.

Can you elaborate a bit on any past projects that were particularly near and dear to you?
I’ve made props, models, and miniatures for TV, films, and photography, but largely stopped doing that when I became a full-time artist in 2000. I’ve collaborated on a couple of music video. I’m pretty proud of both of these…

How did you get into automata? Are you largely self-taught?
I’m self taught. I’ve always been mechanically inclined, and when I first started, my pieces were mechanically very simple. Over the years, I’ve developed more a complex repertoire. Back when I started doing art fairs, I called my work “Articulated Artwork,” I didn’t know the word automata. It’s not a household word, but it is starting to catch on here in the US. Over in the UK, and in Europe, everyone knows what automata is—it has a long history there. Now I realize, it’s what I do—and with this show, I hope the term, and the art form, becomes better-known here in the States.

Any particular automata artists that inspired you as you grew into this field?
Not exactly. But as a youngster, I loved the work of Alexander Calder. I’ve always loved art that moves—any kind of kinetic art. Today I love the work of Jean Tinguely. And of course, I admire the old Masters of automata—Jaquet Droz, Roullet & Decamps, Vichy, Mailardet.

Lastly, could you briefly intro a couple of the artists you’ve selected for this show? 
Yes! Paul Spooner, from the UK, is one of the modern masters who has been creating automata for the past thirty-five years. He often makes delightful, and insightful, wooden figures that are propelled by ingenious mechanical devices.

Thomas Kuntz, who works very much in the style of the “old masters,” has the skills of a jeweler, the dexterity of a clockmaker, and the eye of a sculptor. Nemo Gould (based in Oakland), has created a magnificent seventeen-foot mechanical shark from various found objects. Also husband and wife team, Ann Wood and Dean Lucker make elegantly carved figures coupled with imaginative narratives. We have ten artists in all, each a master with their own style and approach.

stay_webDean Lucker “Moon Medicine”

Departure_webTom Haney’s “Departure”

 +++ “Perpetual Motion: Contemporary Interpretations of Fine Art Automata” opens on Saturday April 16, with a reception from 6-10pm, and runs through May 14, 2016, at Heron Arts.

Exhibiting artists include David Archer (AUS), Chris Fitch (USA), Nemo Gould (USA), Tom Haney (USA), Thomas Kuntz (USA), Pat Keck (USA), Richard Landon (USA), Paul Spooner (UK), and husband and wife collaborators Dean Lucker and Ann Wood (USA).