Dan Steinhilber retrospective: Escaping definitions

Dan Steinhilber's brand of installation art incorporates common items in uncommon ways, immersing visitors' senses and sometimes bodies into the action.
By Blake Gopnik
Sunday, August 8, 2010

Imagine a group show of contemporary art. It includes a manly action-painting made from knotted balloons. (As they deflate over days, this pseudo-Jackson Pollock goes limp.) Near it is an elegant sculptural column, Brancusi-esque, built of hangers. In a separate room, two robotic vacuums try, hopelessly, to clean up a storm of packing peanuts. Farther on, there's a heat lamp mounted over a museum pedestal, with the glowing space between them counting as sculpture.

See such a show, and you might think its curator had assembled a tight little package of art.

But would you imagine they were all by the same artist?

Dan Steinhilber, one of the leading lights of the Washington scene, made all those works, over a professional career that turns 10 this year. They've earned him solos from Baltimore to Houston and group shows from Toronto to Siena. This summer, they've also earned him a residency at Socrates Sculpture Park, on the waterfront in Queens.

Encountered here and there, over the years, those Steinhilbers have sometimes come across as one-liners. But looking at Steinhilber's entire practice, those one-liners start to string together into a promising novella.

To do him justice, clearly what Steinhilber needs is a mid-career retrospective. Since museums have yet to step up to the plate, we're giving him one in our pages.

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As the decade's worth of pieces in our Dan Steinhilber "retrospective" shows, the artist's work is nothing if not varied.

There are common threads. He's often used commonplace materials as artist's supplies: those packing peanuts and dry-cleaner's hangers, as well as trash bags (he made an inflated igloo from white ones) and dying fluorescent bulbs (for light works you could barely see). Critics describe him as the van Gogh of Home Depot, and there's certainly a sense that he seeks beauty in hardware.

He's also often worked with food and drink: a single giant gum stick, put together from many smaller ones assembled with saliva; also, hundreds of plastic pop bottles, filled with mixtures of soda and set into racks so they build a sort of pointillist picture. (Those pop bottles, together with the hanger piece and the trash-bag igloo, were in Steinhilber's breakthrough exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum in 2002. He was the first local artist to nab one of its solo "Directions" shows.) These food pieces step beyond what his materials look like, to address the more bodily concerns that eating always raises.

Even when food isn't in a piece, the body often is. In what may be his most prestigious commission to date, he's made a huge piece that is currently on view at Mass MoCA, the gargantuan Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams. The artist lined a gallery with plastic sheeting by using a giant fan to suck out the air between his plastic and its walls. Every few minutes, the fan's action is reversed and the plastic swells inward and encroaches on the visitors' bodies. It gives a kind of lung's-eye view of existence.

But the crucial organ on view in all of Steinhilber's work, whether body-based or not, is the brain -- his brain, the brain of an artist who's always looking for new problems to worry at, as well as new solutions to old problems. That's what ties all his works together, however varied their materials or subjects. He is not just the van Gogh of Home Depot. He's also the Degas of Dentyne and the Leonardo of Lungs. Which means he's actually an artist who refuses to be any one of those things. His true subject may be his refusal of such definitions, and his quest to escape them -- his career, taken as a whole, yields a mosaic of an artist's mind at work. You could say he's standing in for every artist out there.

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