"Directions: Dan Steinhilber," Sept. 25, 2003-Jan. 4, 2004, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue at Seventh Street SW, Washington, D.C. 20560
"Maggie Michael, Dan Steinhilber," Sept. 12-Oct. 11, 2003, at Kimberly Venardos & Co., 1014 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021
Rosana Castrillo Diaz and Fred Tomaselli in "Warped Space," Sept. 17-Nov. 15, 2003, at CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, 1111 Eighth Street, San Francisco, Ca. 94107
We live in a time when box cutters are used to hijack airplanes, when cell phones and garage door openers can be made to set off bombs, when deadly germs can be delivered in cheap envelopes. Thanks to the USA Patriot Act, even lists of the books we read can be used as weapons against us.
Never before have blue-light specials from aisle six been as full of duality as they are now. Are they tools of convenience? Or can they be used as weapons? Or. . .
. . . can they be art? Many contemporary artists have used common consumer items as the basis for their artworks. Dan Steinhilber, whose work is currently on view in his first solo museum show, a delightful "Directions" exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, uses materials like chewing gum, trash bags, coat hangers, duck sauce packets and soda water. Out at the CCA Wattis Institute in San Francisco, Fred Tomaselli and Rosana Castrillo Diaz are featured in "Warped Space." Tomaselli uses common pharmaceuticals and other drugs in his work, while Diaz' installation at "Warped Space" is made from white tape. Artists such as Brian Jungen (who has just begun a Capp Street Projects residency at CCA Wattis), Tony Feher, Tom Friedman, Cildo Meireles and Tara Donovan also make use of consumer materials. While the works are of varying interest, the overall theme of finding beauty in the mundane is providing new ways to consider all that stuff at the convenience store.
Call them Wal-Martists. They all shop at strip malls. But don't say that any one of them has more of a claim to this territory than any of the others. Steinhilber, Donovan and Castrillo Diaz are no more shopping in Feher's aisle than Feher shops in the Arte Povera aisle. By finding ways to inject beauty into consumer materials -- and Wal-Martists are at their best when they make beauty out of materials that are ugly -- they all validate the practice. As ever in art, the question should not be who did it first but who does it the best.
For me that's Steinhilber. His work is consistently beautiful, minimal and poetic. His best work, like the coat hanger piece on view at the Hirshhorn, takes one item and repeats it, rhyming it with itself. Who knew coat hangers could hang from each other so precisely? Furthermore, who knew that when hung and rhythmically repeated that they created a beautiful sculpture? Who knew that coat hangers were such fun to look at?
Another reason I prefer Steinhilber's work to the other Wal-Martists is that his pieces are the simplest. They are particularly good at bringing out the beauty in the stuff from which they are made. Steinhilber is like a good drummer, holding a composition together while allowing the spotlight to shine on the stars, in his case on materials. At Kimberly Venardos & Co. in New York, Steinhilber made a wall-work that consisted of sticks of Big Red chewing gum, measuring nine by 32 sticks, with each stick licked and stuck to the wall by the artist. It's not quite a perfect square and the sticks of gum don't quite line up perfectly, but that slight imperfection humanizes the piece, helping to make it into something gripping, something visually happy. There is no good reason that a viewer should find anything attractive in chewing gum, but there it is. (And it smells good too.)
Steinhilber's most frequently installed piece is a kind of trash-bag lung, a symmetrical 3-D structure made from draw-string trash bags that are all invisibly linked and inflated and deflated by a Shop-Vac-style vacuum cleaner. (It's been on display frequently in Washington, D.C. and once in Miami.) At first glimpse, the piece is a funky-cool network of trash bags, biological in design. Check back a few minutes later and the trash-bags have fully inflated, tripling in size. It lives! It's smart, it's whimsical, it's fun and even though I've probably seen it in half a dozen venues, I still enjoy watching it breathe.
At his best Steinhilber creates works that you wish you'd thought of. However, not every piece rises above its materials. The soda bottle installation inside the Hirshhorn is one of Steinhilber's least successful pieces, a clunky conglomeration of fluid-filled two-liter bottles. While the coat hangers, the chewing gum and the trash bags surprise the viewer with their simplicity, the soda bottles just kind of sit there, baroque, in more or less the same way they'd be presented at a supermarket. Steinhilber's signature magic of simple multiplication is too complicated for this piece to engage me.
If work with consumer objects can be more minimal than Steinhilber's, Rosana Castrillo Diaz' work is. Her installation in "Warped Space" is called Tape Drawing, a roughly 9 x 6 foot web of narrow white tape installed about two inches off of a wall. Remarkably, it is perfectly parallel to the wall behind it. In the CCA Wattis galleries, it is unlit, adding to the illusion of absence. When I first walked into the gallery, I didn't see it. Heck, I'm not proud: The second time I walked into the gallery I didn't see it. But when I finally did see it. . . the wispy white tape revealed itself the same way a spider web reveals itself, slowly, hesitantly and only to someone who is willing to leave it alone once it is discovered. As with the best art, you see and enjoy Castrillo Diaz' Tape Drawing more the more you look at it (and in my case, for it). This is the first work of Castrillo Diaz' I've seen and I look forward to seeing more. Her work alone makes "Warped Space" a show that art tourists should head for right after they see the Marc Chagall retrospective at SFMOMA.
The subtle joy of discovery I enjoy in Steinhilber's work and in Castrillo Diaz' work is completely missing for me in the work of Fred Tomaselli. Dude! They're drugs! I know! Like the other Wal-Martists, Tomaselli takes ordinary stuff and makes less-ordinary stuff out of it. But while others trust their materials, Tomaselli basks in his own gimmick. One work in "Warped Space," 13,000, shows us thousands of pills of aspirin, stacked in wavy lines and covered in Tomaselli's trademark resin finish. I get it: looking too closely at wavy lines of little pills gives you a headache and you need the aspirin. Spinal Tap told us that there is a fine line between stupid and clever. Tomaselli spends too much time testing where that line is.
Ultimately, I think the Wal-Martists are on to something that goes beyond Pop Art, the 20th century art movement in which their work is grounded. Like the Pop artists, the Wal-Martists feature common, everyday materials, but unlike the Pop artists, the Wal-Martists use their materials as building blocks. At a time when consumer items are often used as weapons, it's nice to be shown that the mundane can be beautiful.