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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.

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The artist Steinhilber has become this summer in Queens seems unlike any of his other incarnations.

We caught up with him one morning during the recent heat wave, on the industrial waterfront that's been reclaimed as Socrates Sculpture Park. It might have been better to meet him in a coffee shop.

Steinhilber doesn't merely want visitors to look at the piece as it gets made, which is always the goal at Socrates. He wants help making it. Visit Steinhilber, and before you know it, you're lying fully dressed, at high noon, in a pile of hot sand, arms and legs flailing as grit creeps into your collar, your shoes, your pockets, your briefs. Steinhilber stands above you, grinning -- maybe, if you're an art critic, with a touch of vengeful glee.

For his new outdoor piece, called "Casting Angels," Steinhilber has built a huge sandbox and is asking passersby to make "snow angels" in it. He fills their traces with concrete, then spreads the angelic castings across the sculpture park's grass. When the project goes on view Sept. 12, misting nozzles lashed to the trees overhead will provide a kind of heavenly cloud cover for his very material, notably earthbound crowd of angels who, more than anything, seem to have fallen, splat, to the ground.

"An angel -- what does that mean exactly?" says Steinhilber, sitting for a moment in the shade. His 38th birthday is approaching, but he looks much younger, with wavy shoulder-length hair and a compact build. He's wearing plaid capris, much washed, and a hip green T-shirt with a drawing of a parking lot and the single word "hermetic." He could easily pass for the bassist in some alt-rock band. With his puppy eyes and big, shy smile, he'd be irresistible to groupies.

"I grew up religious, and I believe in God," he says, but he has his doubts about God's winged lieutenants. "It's not that I'm interested in angels -- I'm not sure I believe in them. . . . But I guess if anybody asks me, I'll say I believe. There's something cool about believing in something you have no idea about."

Perhaps, though, his pieces have more to do with childhood traditions. "People who don't even have a faith still lie down and make an angel," he says, to the atheist critic who's about to make one.

Or you could think that his work's connection is to flight, he says -- except that the concrete pieces are aggressively grounded. Sculpture is usually about "erecting" an object, about raising something up, he says, "but I'm making foundations."

Pointing at the water of the East River lapping at the sculpture park's edge a few feet from his sandbox, and at the concrete of the New York skyline beyond it, he insists on the "site specificity" of his project, whose art supplies are nothing more than water and concrete.

His site-specificity spreads further, to the people on site. Socrates, whose grounds are open 365 days a year, is all about letting local strollers watch its resident artists at work. Steinhilber's angels are a sign that he's embracing that idea, ceding some aesthetic control to the audience in a down-at-the-heels corner of Queens, and giving them a subject they're likely to respond to. "I'm just saying, get in there and make your best angel. And I don't even have to say it. They just do," says Steinhilber.

He's running a real risk that the sophisticates of New York's art world, unaware of his earlier, less populist work, will read the Socrates pieces as goofy and outsider-ish, the kind of thing a farmer might do on his lawn. But what they'll miss, if they do that, is the community dimension. "I'm kind of letting go a little bit, letting other people do it. But that's what this situation calls for."

With its figuration, and its audience participation, and its popular subject, Steinhilber admits the piece is unlike anything he's tried before -- almost. He figures that a snow angel may just have been the first work of sculpture he ever made, as a kid growing up in frigid Oshkosh, Wis. "It's in my repertoire, and I know it's in other people's repertoires, even if they're not artists."

Steinhilber says he's just "playing out" his oldest idea, to see what will happen with it now. "Because you never know until it's done. . . . I'm taking a risk -- which is something you have to do."

Dan Steinhilber

will be showing new pieces at Washington's G Fine Art in October. His project at the Socrates Sculpture Park launches Sept. 12. Call 718-956-1819 or visit

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