Friday, March 21, 2008

Last weekend, I attended the opening of the Dan Steinhilber show at G Fine Art. Steinhilber has always excelled at gestures using cheap, commonplace found objects—shampoo bottles, oscillating fans, coat hangers—that should come off like cheeky, inside-y art school one-liners. Instead, Steinhilber’s work typically offers just the right mix of humor, élan, and grace, and the viewer is left wondering why something as simple and faintly ridiculous as a flurry of agitated Styrofoam packing peanuts can hold the attention and imagination for such long spans.

Of course I’m referring to Steinhilber’s installation at the Baltimore Museum of Art. That piece serves as the inspiration for much of the artist’s current body of work at G. Despite its obvious debt to postminimalism, his art has always seemed fresh, contemporary. His new show, however, offers a strange sense of temporal dislocation. Maybe it’s just the photos lining the gallery walls, and documenting abstract, blurred explosions of those same peanuts from the BMA show. All of the pics are grainy, blurry black and white—at least superficially resembling the documentation of some early ‘70s ephemeral action or other. Or maybe it’s the floor pieces: sculptures made from black plastic trash bags, still more packing peanuts, and gorilla glue—vacuum-formed into arched, twisting forms, resembling molten asphalt or charcoal. These could maybe pass for works by some contemporary of Eva Hesse's, all giving conservators fits as they slowly degrade, consuming themselves in some museum storeroom.

This is possibly the most commodifiable that Steinhilber has seemed: It’s one thing to buy, say, a pair of oscillating fans, one blowing into another; it’s something else to buy one-of-a-kind handmade sculptures that refer to an artist’s recent prestige piece—or photos you can hang on your wall for the same effect. It’s therefore a little ironic that these works more closely resemble the postminimal period on which Steinhilber so clearly depends.

The one truly mesmerizing piece in the show hides behind curtains of black plastic sheeting: A wall-mounted square of buzzing, flickering light. Is this a video piece, a projection? Nope, it’s a cluster of dying fluorescent tubes, all of which have had their ballast pre-distressed by the artist to make them almost flicker into life—but not quite. Making art with fluorescent tubes is admittedly a risky proposition—hey, look! Dan Flavin! But Steinhilber pulls it off, showing that even when he wears his influences on his sleeve, he’s still capable of a magic trick or two. Like the best of Steinhilber’s work, even after you’ve thoroughly figured out just what the heck it is you’re seeing—after you’ve pinned down the impoverished material at the work’s heart—the fascination doesn’t go away. (No wonder that this piece sold before the opening even got underway.)


Blogger P.K. said...

i agree wholeheartedley, the works in this show felt very safe. i where i was lost was in the stunning lack of attention to materials. when i think of steinhilber's previous work it is a HYPER attention to materials which is where the strength of the pieces are found. as far as the photographs, i would go so far to say that i found their quality appalling-at both a formal and conceptual level.


4:23 PM  

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