Dan Steinhilber retrospective: Escaping definitions

By Blake Gopnik
Sunday, August 8, 2010; E06

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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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 http://www.socratessculpturepark.org.

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