Foam Land Insecurity

Foam packing peanuts -- captured in still images as they swirl in abstract patterns, at top in photo, or formed into bulky sculptures that are surprisingly lightweight, are among the materials Dan Steinhilber uses in his latest show.
Foam packing peanuts -- captured in still images as they swirl in abstract patterns, at top in photo, or formed into bulky sculptures that are surprisingly lightweight, are among the materials Dan Steinhilber uses in his latest show. (By Dan Steinhilber)
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By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 28, 2008

We think we know a Dan Steinhilber when we see it.

A Steinhilber is loud. Remember the roar and hum of the leaf blowers and Roomba robot vacuums in the artist's 2006 Baltimore Museum of Art exhibition? Or it might be bright, like the rainbow soda bottles the artist stacked in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden a few years back. Vivid color and aural assault -- these are Steinhilberisms. Something sinister may have lurked below the din, but the surface was all energy.

What, then, is Steinhilber minus that rush and color? It's a creepier, more ambiguous work, and a gallery's worth of examples are on view at G Fine Art. Though his materials list remains nearly the same -- stuff bought at Home Depot or CVS -- Steinhilber has turned out a show more somber by far. Darker both literally and metaphorically, these sculptures, photographs, works on paper and a light installation speak of the political and the pessimistic.

Large-scale prints of black-and-white photographs of packing peanuts -- yes, those little plastic foam things -- ring the gallery's main room. In his studio, Steinhilber makes them dance through the air in waves and gusts generated by a leaf blower. Here, his pictures find the peanuts nearly frozen in action, though some retain the blur of motion and memory of movement. Presented in somber tones of gray, they resemble the ghosts of confetti, reeds blowing the wind or waves at sea.

The pictures surround a field of large black sculptures shaped into ambiguous organic forms. Steinhilber makes them from a mixture of packing peanuts and glue that he puts inside massive garbage bags. Once he's sealed the peanuts and glue into the bag, he pushes, pulls, hugs and molds them; as the glue inside dries, he inserts a Shop-Vac hose and sucks the air out -- all this as he continues to wrestle them into shape. When the forms set, he cuts the hose and seals them.

Their surfaces alternate the mottled shape of the peanuts with wrinkled strain marks on the bags. Their shapes loosely resemble crouching figures, natural forms, even puppies. The artist referred to one as "coral covered with an oil spill."

With implications of violence to nature and the environment, the expanse of sculpture and photos is positively funeral. The stuff of convenience -- those peanuts, the trash bags, and the freezer paper and recycling bags that make up his works on paper -- becomes the stuff of death.

If the gallery's front room is a morgue, then the curtained-off rear room is the hereafter.

There, fluorescent tubes flicker with dim, ghostly light. Rigged so as to emit the rays of a dying bulb, the tubes barely light the room. Tap the bulbs and they glow brighter, as if our touch revivifies them. It's the show's only glimmer of hope.

In a conversation at the gallery and via e-mail, Steinhilber explained the thinking behind the works on view:

Why packing peanuts?


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