“That show?!” Not long ago I made a passing comment about how much I liked Haim Steinbach‘s exhibition Creature at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (through October 22), and it didn’t go over well. Some people I spoke to criticized the artist’s work for having remained “the same” for over 25 years; others thought his object arrangements weren’t nearly as poignant as Jeff Koons’s. I don’t agree with either criticism.
For one, Steinbach’s long, shelf-like wall-mounted wedges holding objects evocative of the human figure are as good as he’s ever produced. And whereas I often find Koons’s complicity in his work’s vacuity and commodity too dark to fully enjoy, I’ve never thought poignancy was Steinbach’s bag anyway. For me, the thrill of looking at Creature is in the complete visual balance of his sculptures, often achieved through the erasure of an object’s origin or function. Koons elevates the same essence that Steinbach seeks to remove from things.
“Objects are riddles,” Steinbach told me in a recent interview, a point made immediately apparent by the five wall-mounted works in the first floor gallery. Unlike most shelves, which are viewed front-on, almost all the gallery visitors I saw examined the pieces front to back as if looking for an answer key.
As a riddle, it’s a tough one: two black rubber dog chews, a plastic bunny, a Storm-trooper figurine, and a bulbous white tree don’t immediately seem to add up to anything. And the title, “Robot Poetry,” seems only to gesture towards the sculpture’s formalist grace.
I doubt one interpretation of the work is more valid than another, but to my mind Steinbach’s virtuosity lies in his ability to encourage the viewer to draw abstract conclusions and connections. The angled lines of the shelf revealed by the Stormtrooper’s slightly lowered platform evoke a ship’s gangway, and the broken line of the shelf perfectly matches the angle of the Star Wars toy’s extended arm. The Stormtrooper’s purpose, though, remains a mystery.
This is fine with me because there’s enough surface variation and visual harmony to a keep a viewer busy looking for the next ten years. In “Western Hills” we see the exposed MDF of the shelf in addition to flat areas coated with brown, purple and green enamel. The edge of each wedge is different: beveled, straight, inset; and each object dissimilar: found, bought, mass-produced and, in other pieces, handcrafted. Steinbach’s objects rest on these shelves made of different-sized parts, all of the same proportion, and each fitting together like a geometric Matryoshka doll.
Upstairs, the exhibition’s scale shifts to installation-based work focused on the size and pattern relationships between an angled wall with floral wallpaper and its exposed drywall counterpart. If there’s a narrative here, it’s well hidden. Certainly, it’s less apparent than in “Creature,” the only figurative work in the upstairs gallery. Backed by an incline that throws the room off-kilter, a 22-inch collectible Creature from the Black Lagoon toy stands perfectly centered atop a horizontal beam spanning the gallery’s width. Arguably this piece has the closest relationship to Koons’s work, as there’s an immutable element of exalted commodity to it. The architecture of the space is wholly designed to showcase this single object—or any other roughly its size.
For this reason, the titular piece may suffer from some of the criticisms I heard about the exhibition, though it’s visually compelling enough that I’m not particularly bothered. The message in white text on a black wall one room over—”You don’t see it do you?”—tempers the boldness of “Creature,” as if teasing the viewer for not having drawn enough connections. It isn’t visible from the vantage point of a viewer inside the installation, but it precedes the piece, and may leave a more sensitive visitor wondering why they are being teased for not looking hard enough. I suspect the text is meant more kindly as a gentle reminder that Creature is supposed to be an enigma rather than a map of meaning.
(Image: Haim Steinbach, “Creature” (2011). Courtesy Tanya Bonakdar Gallery)