Back to the Future: Arteco


Western Pennsylvania artist Stewart Webb has updated vintage Art Deco design with a thoroughly future-forward “eco” ethos.  His “technomontage” jewelry and objects for the home are crafted using repurposed high tech materials.  If the towering skyscraper, the glint of a fast-moving train, or the sleek veneer of an automobile were once absorbed by Art Deco design, Webb’s point of focus is the technology of today’s generation: hardware for computers and electronics, and the products of the aerospace and military industries.  These modern-day technological parts come together in jewelry, clocks, sculpture, and light fixtures that simulate traditional decorative materials, such as pearls, gemstones, enamels, and precious metals.  Whereas Art Deco’s structured forms and materials once celebrated a forward march of confident progress and the might of the machine-age, Webb’s artwork represents a more critical look at the double edged sword of the impact of modern technology on the environment and our society.  With so many creative initiatives focused on organic materials, Webb’s art lends perspective on mitigating the environmental damage of technology.

Thinking in Reverse

“Demanufacturing”, or taking things apart, is an integral part of Webb’s creative process.  Webb, who is dyslexic, believes it contributes to his proclivity for doing things in reverse.  He also has always been curious about the mechanics of how things work.  Webb sees a need for taking responsibility for our technological footprint on the environment, and, as he put it in a recent interview “getting back to something that nature can cope with”.  In a world where the majority of us, for example, use a computer as well as travel in cars and planes, there is a need for better solutions for disposing of technological waste that usually ends up in landfills or is incinerated.  Yet, as Webb knows well, thinking backward in order to dissassemble technology “in an intense going back to nature” is seemingly without end or dissolution.  Webb’s deconstruction of technology into a decorative, repurposed artform certainly questions our ability to “undo” technology as well as the fine line between creation and destruction in our orientation toward the direction of true progress.

The creative potential of thinking retrogressively has also informed the thinking of other contemporary artists, such as the Dutch Ursus Wehrli‘s “Tidying up art” projects.  Wehrli’s “tidying” of the materials and visual forms of modern art reflects a similar fascination with origins and psychological reversals.  A temporal idea of a turn in direction, and even an unscrewing, is pervasive in creative efforts to green our habits and safeguard our natural resources by taking a step backward to go forward.

Human Versus Machine

Webb notes that whereas electronics are simply either “on or off”, our human condition is a state of grey.”  People are much more complex since we can be just fractionally more or less alive.  Donning a bit of Arteco jewelry certainly seems to turn on the bad-ass Terminator cyborg or more friendly R2D2 robot inside of us.  Turn on, as in flipping a switch, is the right word to describe the kind of synergy implied by wearing on our bodies techie bits that were once plugged in, zapped, and otherwise activated.

Webb’s description of his design in terms of biomechanics further reveals his humanism.  He likens the structured, regimented shapes of Art Deco, which he employs, to the steady heartbeat of the body.  He also relates the circuitry and creativity of the brain to the tech materials he manipulates, which, under magnification, reveal ever-expansive, geometric fractals.  A consideration of the physical relationship between living beings and machines is also evident in his observation on shelf life: “biological things wear out, mechanical things don’t.”

Like Polish Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka‘s (1898-1980) paintings of machine-like babes of yesterday, Arteco engages in a new relationship to technology for T-Ec[h]-o-Chicks of today.