Since the mid-1980s, Haim Steinbach’s art has most often taken the form of a selection of found objects arranged on a wedge-shaped, laminated plywood shelf. In these works, the objects’ formal attributes, iconographic presence and metaphoric potential, as well as their historical, cultural and class associations, may all be in play at once.
Steinbach’s regular forays into wall paintings using fragments of found text, room-size installations and freestanding display units have rarely produced work as engaging as the shelf pieces, which at their best combine retinal art, imagist poetry and cultural anthropology. His first solo exhibition at Tanya Bonakdar (now representing the artist in conjunction with his longtime gallery, Sonnabend) proved that Steinbach has not yet exhausted the possibilities of his trademark device.
The core of the show was five new shelf pieces. Here the unifying theme—as suggested by the exhibition’s title, “creature”—is the figure. While it would be unwise to assign a particular narrative to any of the works—deliberately open-ended, they lend themselves to multiple interpretations—the appearance of a variety of characters, from Darth Vader and Mr. Peanut to more generic types, results in a palpable sense that these are histories, although what or whose they might be is less clear.
western hills, which incorporates a kitsch figure of a cartoon sheriff, a new, metal pail with an “Invest in America” sticker, and a child’s wooden puzzle in sunset colors, suggests tales of the frontier, even as its progression of pyramidal shapes—ten-gallon hat, bucket lid and conical toy—unites the objects in a purely formal way. the bather pairs a carved folk art mermaid with two frog-shaped wastebaskets (and the V-shapes of the mermaid’s upraised arms with those of the frog’s forelegs), conjuring fairy stories and paintings by Magritte.
Of the other works in the show, the oddest are a pair of wall-mounted, glass-fronted boxes, each containing an antique stool topped with a museum reproduction of a Degas dancer. In contrast to the cheerfully expansive shelf works, they seem remote, like frozen memories. Least successful are a number of wall texts (one reads “No Elephants”); they seem unable to shake off their self-satisfied and annoying intonations.
Rounding out the exhibition were two room environments. One, featuring two different kinds of wallpaper and a wall text that reads, “You don’t see it, do you?” is simply claustrophobic. The other, a white painted, light flooded space occupied only by a vinyl figure of the Creature from the Black Lagoon perched on a square beam something like an elongated shelf, is oddly sublime.
Steinbach’s great achievement is to have invented a poetic and theatrical language of objects with which to speak of modern life and the human condition. His strength is to have continued to explore possibilities of such a language under considerable critical pressure to move on to new formats. As this show made clear, he has more to say with it.
Photo: Haim Steinbach: the bather, 2011, plastic laminated wood shelf, rubber dog chew, painted wood mermaid statue and resin containers, 581⁄8 by 100 by 18 3⁄4 inches; at Tanya Bonakdar.