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Enter into Dan Steinhilber’s work one of two ways: from outside or inside. The experiences are so different that “Interface,” now hanging at G Fine Art, might as well be two different shows.
From the outside—meaning, simply looking at his plastic-wrap inflatables, 13 of which are on the walls of the gallery—Steinhilber’s work is most definitely sculpture. These pieces hang like big plastic Ikea bags on coat hooks, or in context, like the soft sculptures of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. On the wall, his works resemble colorful, formless, wrinkled dates or sun-dried tomatoes.
Plug any one of them into an electric socket, though, and the work changes entirely. In fact, “Interface,” the impish artist’s third solo exhibition with the gallery, might be four shows or eight or 12, depending on how many viewers are on hand.
“Untitled Mobile Interface Site (Conversation Pillow)” is a lumpen yellow and gray-green sack on the wall, for example. But the works in Steinhilber’s show aren’t meant to be left there hanging. This one comes equipped with two electric cords, which are connected to two salvaged Mac computer fans arranged inside the sagging sculpture. Plugged in, the fans inflate the piece into a long tubular organ: an entirely new disposition for the work.
From the inside—there is an inside of Steinhilber’s sculptures, once they’re inflated—the viewer’s experience is wholly different. Here’s how his work works: Every piece features at least one square-shaped connector, a small frame that allows the work to hang on the wall but also serves as an entry point for viewers. These squares are sealed with a stretchy, spandex-y diaphragm, which keeps the air inside the inflatable. These airlocks are permeable membranes. With a little effort, a viewer can stick her head through the seal to see the sculpture inside-out. So “Untitled Mobile Interface Site (Conversation Pillow)” needs to be approached three different ways: once, as a bulbous painting on the wall; second, as an inflated banana hammock resting on the ground; and a third time, as an apparatus the viewer is supposed to wear over her head. Make that viewer or viewers—this particular piece offers two square- shaped apertures through which two individuals can simultaneously squeeze their heads (and see one another).
“Interface” is Steinhilber’s crudest show to date in at least a couple of different ways. The works are formed with plastic wrap, the sort used to secure industrial palettes of goods at Costco, and ironed by the artist to give them texture and reinforcement. While it’s nothing new to find fugitive materials in Steinhilber’s work, these materials are less obvious, less self-professing, than, say, the clothes hangers he turned into a giant column for a sculpture that belongs to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Or the kite he attached to an electric fan for a tight little self-contained composition in a gallery show some years ago. In “Interface,” Steinhilber’s works look like paintings. They might as well be paint—just plastic in a different form. They are cruder, closer to oil, than prior works that comprised discrete objects: shampoo bottles, duck-sauce packets, whatever.
Steinhilber’s sculptures also express a grade-school sense of biological humor. Viewers are supposed to molest these pieces: grab them off the wall, plug them into a socket, penetrate their orifices. “Untitled Mobile Interface Site (Tertiary Migraine)” looks like a heart, purple and veiny, both hanging on the wall and inflated on the ground. Inside—meaning, again, the sight after the viewer has reverse-birthed her head into the interior of the piece through the sculpture’s sphincter-like canal—“Tertiary Migraine” is banded with all the brilliant colors of Jupiter’s atmosphere and all the veins of a lump of liposuctioned fat. From the outside: hypoxia, a lack of oxygen. From the inside: unexpected dynamics in color and texture.
With “Interface,” Steinhilber finds common cause with the Austrian sculptor, Erwin Wurm, who sought to remarry the body with sculptural form after the strict separation of the two during the high dudgeon of modernism. From Surrealism on, the body was typically a thing to be abstracted, a launching pad for biomorphic composition. Wurm brought it back home with sculptures that explicitly featured bodies, namely through his “One Minute Sculpture” series, in which real human people wrestle with objects—fruit, detergent, chairs, you name it. “Interface” seems to allude to a temporary transformation that happens when a viewer removes one of Steinhilber’s works from the wall, inflates it, and wears it.
At the same time, several of his sculptures have undeniable appeal as wall works—in particular two smaller pieces, “Untitled Mobile Interface Site (Gamer)” and “Untitled Mobile Interface Site (Bcc Constellation).” These two in particular seem to correspond with one another across the room, perhaps because they share a sharper geometry. Other works are more blobular. “Gamer” and “Bcc Constellation” look like invertebrate echinoderms, warped starfish, struggling to assert the symmetry imposed on them by nature.
After a quick introduction, viewers will understand exactly how to interface with Steinhilber’s works: Plug ’em in, put ’em on, and tune into a mini-atmosphere of color and texture. Even inert, the works read as coherent formal sculptures, akin to Franz West’s audacious and amateurish plaster “adaptives.” Take one of those and inflate it, and that’s a Steinhilber—good for admiring, good for wearing.
Indeed, the one drawback to Steinhilber’s show is its scope: 13 sculptures is too many to drive the point home. (It’s fortunate that the G Fine Art space used to be a beauty salon, so there are plenty of outlets along the walls.) Five or six pieces might have drawn greater distinction to the particular works on view. But when one of them, “Untitled Mobile Interface Site (Chat Room),” is a vast duplex pyramid with three entry-holes, it’s simple enough for viewers to lose sight of the whole by burying their heads, together, into Steinhilber’s ultra-fun-time experience.
Rockne Krebs, an innovative artist who lived andworked in D.C. for nearly five decades, died in 2011. By then, many of his best works were lost to time. Krebs, a Navy Reserve man who worked in optics, was a formal inventor who made laser light his chosen medium. His light installations were the first to make use of lasers in art. But given all the advances in laser engineering since his pioneering works of the late 1960s through the ’80s (and successive restrictions on laser use), few of his sculptural light works would pack as much wow today, assuming they could be remounted in the first place.
Nevertheless, like so many D.C. artists of the last few decades, Krebs is due for another look. Artists from the Washington Color School and those who fell into its orbit—namely Sam Gilliam—have found new purchase in a contemporary art market dominated by formalist experimentation. “Rockne Krebs: The Smoke Drawings,” now on view at Hemphill Fine Arts, is a first step in reexamining Krebs’ career. This show includes work that is finer, in many respects, than any of his city-scaled laser-light displays.
“The Smoke Drawings” refers to a series of graphic works that Krebs made after receiving a Guggenheim Foundation grant in 1972. The award gave him license to focus on drawings and a means to escape his mounting ideas for public installations. The works he accomplished in 1973 are luminous and unfathomable: Per my limited research into the smoke drawings, no one’s quite certain how he made them.
More of a set of experiments than a fully articulated series, “The Smoke Drawings” comprises untitled paper works that the artist made using airbrush and candle smoke. The airbrush is simple to detect: Soft fields of color lend atmosphere to Krebs’ compositions. The candle smoke is easy to find, alright, but much harder to explain. The paper doesn’t appeared to be burned. In 2016, it might be easier for a layman to divine how his laser installations worked.
Certainly some of these drawings work better than others as compositions, suggesting that the process by which Krebs infused paper with candle smoke was not entirely his to control. At a glance, the drawings are wispy, barely there, bound or guided only slightly by Krebs’s judicious use of airbrush. Negative space is the defining feature of these roughly 10-by-10-inch artworks. Two larger, substantially denser and more colorful pieces suggest a culmination in Krebs’ strategy, but the smaller studies are stronger..
As if to underscore the Krebs revival, Hemphill has mounted in an attendant gallery room a stellar suite of works by D.C. luminaries: Leon Berkowitz, Alma Woodsey Thomas, Sam Gilliam, Thomas Downing, Anne Truitt, and Gene Davis. Quite a roster. Each of these artists is enjoying (or overdue for) reconsideration as explorers who discovered new formats of modernism that wouldn’t come into vogue for many years. “The Smoke Drawings” makes the case for Krebs as a contemporary worthy, albeit not with the work for which he is best known. “The Smoke Drawings” is a convincing show. Finding Krebs’s best work may mean digging even deeper in his archives.
4718 14th St. NW. Free. (202) 462-1601 gfineartdc.com.
1515 14th St. NW. Free. (202) 234-5601. hemphillfinearts.com.