IT HAS BEEN a busy year for artists Dan and Maggie Steinhilber -- and it's not over yet. Between the pressure of his-and-hers thesis exhibitions at American University (where each earned an MFA this past spring) and the demands of raising a child (son Clay just started walking a few months back), both have been absorbed in making new work for a steady stream of solo and group exhibitions at commercial galleries and alternative art spaces around town, including a pair of exemplary shows on view right now. Upcoming exhibitions to which they have been invited include a survey of area artists opening next month at the Warehouse and a joint show of Washington and Mexican artists debuting this spring at the Mexican Cultural Institute.
While there is a certain yin and yang evident in the couple's art -- his work might be described as painterly sculpture, hers as sculptural painting -- each exhibition is also nicely counterpointed by being shown alongside the work of a second artist, affording even further contrast. At the distinctly "downtown" Signal 66 space, Dan's gorgeous, wit-laced mixed-media installations of smeared toothpaste, suspended dry cleaning hangers, soda pop in acrylic cylinders and a giant pillow of air-filled trash bags contrast nicely with the biomorphic polyps, tubes and amoebic shapes of painter Tim Beard, who is also showing there. Similarly, Maggie (who uses the surname Michael professionally), is being showcased at Georgetown's tony G Fine Art along with the work of New York painter James Nares. There, a half-dozen of her "clone" paintings (thick, quasi-minimalist puddles of house paint poured onto vertical plastic panels) hang nearby a series of Nares' flamboyantly gymnastic calligraphies.
Of the two spaces, Signal 66 affords the strongest contrast. Beard's pictures, while evoking states of mysterious, pensive emotion, are flat and static. Steinhilber's four untitled installation pieces, on the other hand, suggest: a humongous white blossom, sunlight on fall foliage, a profusion of fern leaves and a flock of pigeons (or a school of fish) frozen in mid-turn. They shimmer, breathe, flutter and, in the case of one 10-by-10-foot painting made from turquoise gel dentifrice, stink of mint.
Steinhilber's work would be happy merely to dazzle, if that's all it did. It is, at minimum, transcendently clever eye candy, particularly the meringue-like geodesic dome of plastic bags that inflates and deflates in a Shop Vac-fueled rite of spring, and the array of tube guards -- eight-foot-long acrylic sleeves originally used to protect fluorescent light bulbs -- that the artist has filled with mixtures of yellow, orange, red and purple soda pop in a kind of autumnal, 3-D homage to Gene Davis. The dynamic balance of his hanger sculpture evokes nothing so much as the spawn of an Alexander Calder mobile -- assuming it had become pregnant with a litter of a thousand babies.
But there is something else at work here, too. Not only is there an obvious allusion to our throwaway culture but an oblique reminder as well of the evanescence of all things. Like leaves on trees, birds flying south and cherry blossoms, Steinhilber's art will, by design, turn yellow, crust over, evaporate and deflate -- as paper, toothpaste, soda and trash bags are wont to do -- even as it blows us away with its beauty today.
At G Fine Art, Michael's "clone" paintings call to mind genetically engineered twins. Once she creates one of her irregular bloblike puddles, she attempts to replicate it immediately next to the first one. Where her husband's works never really stand still, though, Michael's paintings are clean, cool, unstirring. Unlike, say, Ellsworth Kelly's low-temperature abstractions, they are interesting not for their pursuit of perfection, but for their flaws -- for what the poet Robert Herrick called "a sweet disorder in the dress." (A cottage-cheese-surfaced piece not included in this show, but one which I had seen earlier in the artist's studio, is called, appropriately enough, "Cellulite.")
In Michael's clones, the eye seeks out not sameness, but individual character. It isn't purity one finds here in their large-pored, pock-marked "skins" and surface blemishes but a kind of stubborn individuality that keeps them from becoming mere academic exercises in the application of paint or items of attenuated architectural decoration. They are, in no small measure, metaphors for humankind.
MAGGIE MICHAEL: CLONES and JAMES NARES: NEW WORK -- Through Dec. 14 at G Fine Art, 3271 M St. NW. 202-333-0300. Open Tuesdays through Fridays 11 to 6; Saturdays 11 to 5. Free.
TIM BEARD AND DAN STEINHILBER -- Through Dec. 22 at Signal 66, 926 N St. NW (rear) (Metro: Mt. Vernon Square/7th St. -- Convention Center). 202-842-3436. www.signal66.com. Open Fridays 5 to 8, Saturdays noon to 5 and by appointment. Free.
DB-SIDES -- Dec. 7 through Jan. 12 at the Warehouse, 1019 Seventh St. NW (Metro: Mount Vernon Square/7th St. -- Convention Center). 202-639-1828. www.wpaconline.org. Open Thursdays 7 to midnight; Saturdays and Sundays noon to 5. Free. On Dec. 7 from 7 to midnight, there will be an opening reception for artists Maggie Michael, Dan Steinhilber, Christine Carr, Geoff Johnson, Bridget Sue Lambert, Isabel Manalo, Brandon Morse, Joan VanSledright, Anita Walsh and Team Response (Jason Balicki, Justin Barrows and Matt Sutton).
PARALLEL VISIONS is the tentative title for a group show of Mexican and American artists featuring Dan Steinhilber and Maggie Michael, opening March 6, 2003, at the Mexican Cultural Institute, 2829 16th St. NW (Metro: Columbia Heights). 202-728-1628. www.embassyofmexico.org/mci. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays 11 to 5. Free.