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“Directions—Dan Steinhilber”

At the Hirshhorn Museum and

Sculpture Garden to Jan. 4

The convenience-store beverage display is a wonder of modern marketing. With its ever-changing range of “outrageous” flavors both garishly and hygienically packaged, it balances the would-be extreme appeal of the latest soft-drink R&D with the tacit reassurance that, however sweet the syrup, however lurid the hue, there’s nothing inside the bottle that is going to kill you.

But once the cap comes off, it’s as though a contract has been broken along with the plastic safety ring. You can drain the contents before the fizz is gone, or you can recap, knowing that the second glass will never measure up to that first sparkling sip. Nothing spotlights the sanctity of the soda-pop pact like a bottle that has been messed with; there is no suspicion like that you get when you pass a peculiarly refilled container standing on the curb. What’s in there—Prestone, piss, a little bit of chaw?

Dan Steinhilber has a knack for trifling with pop purity, for pushing disposable consumer goods where you don’t expect them to go, for holding suspicion in counterpoise with an unforeseen beauty. In this, his first museum solo exhibition, in addition to palette upon palette of soda, he also takes on paper-covered wire clothes hangers and white kitchen garbage bags. The show is the first in the Hirshhorn’s rethought “Directions” series; the single-artist showcase no longer will be bound to the third-floor gallery that housed it for years. By splitting Steinhilber’s show between the lobby and the sculpture garden immediately outside, curator and Hirshhorn Deputy Director-designate Olga Viso appears to be looking back to the “Works” series of site-specific installations that the museum hosted in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Outdoors, in a verdant pool of pachysandra, stands a single commercial red wire rack holding 36 2-liter bottles of soda, some of them bearing labels. There are Sprite (regular and Tropical ReMix), 7 UP, Canada Dry ginger ale, Mountain Dew, Fresca, Minute Maid (probably lemonade), Mello Yello, and Safeway Strawberry. Although most of these drinks and their containers fall, by virtue of focus-grouped, test-marketed design, within the yellow-green range Steinhilber is manipulating, he hasn’t simply gone with each bottle’s given contents. He may have started out with trays of distinct, fresh-from-the-factory hues, but he set to cutting and concentrating tone and clarity, recombining flavors in endlessly subtle variations on what take-charge soda-fountain junkies call a “graveyard.” He then funneled the various liquids into his various bottles, recapped them (not always with the tops they came with), and arranged them like a pointillist working on a grand scale with sleek torpedoes of color instead of dots of paint.

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For viewers familiar with the brilliantly artificial effects Steinhilber has produced in the past, the result is surprisingly natural. And although earlier pieces employed hand-mixed concoctions, they were less obviously the result of artistic adulteration. The postcard-azure abyss Steinhilber produced in a white 5-gallon bucket for the Numark Gallery’s summer “transparent.” show, for example, was a blend of Blue Pepsi, Rock Creek blue cream, and an obscure brand of blue raspberry soda, but a viewer could be forgiven for imagining that it was poured straight from a case of bottles unearthed in some dusty bodega.

In the sculpture garden, there’s no question a nonmercantile eye is at work. With its vertical grid of greens playing off the surrounding foliage, the piece references both plein-air painting and bucolic public statuary. At one point, there was a fly buzzing around, drawn by the scent of the trim little oasis that, though placed where none is really needed, seems not at all out of place. And true to nature, which thrives on decay, this sylvan fantasy has a nauseous underside, thanks to Steinhilber’s having tainted sterile supermarket selections into algal murk.

The two solos and three group shows I’d seen Steinhilber’s work in over the past year and a half had suggested that he sees himself more as a maker of objects than as a manipulator of environments. A stack of untwisted twisty-dog balloons lazily stuffed between columns at the Mexican Cultural Institute’s overrated “Fission/Fusion” grab bag seemed particularly forlorn. But he handles the Hirshhorn with aplomb. The museum’s lobby, an escalator-slashed, glassed-in arc dropped beneath Gordon Bunshaft’s massive torus—which also houses a boxy, half-transparent gift shop—is notoriously tough to deal with. Other than a bust of the institutional namesake, it has in recent memory only rarely hosted works of art.

Steinhilber has lined the arc’s inner-curve window-wall with 44 black wire racks, which hold 1,211 2-liter bottles of soda. (The artist says counting isn’t important to him, but it’s a habit I find hard to break.) As you move in from either end, empty racks give way to racks sparsely, haphazardly filled in with unlabeled bottles of Sprite ReMix. A little farther in, the racks are packed solid, and clear liquids yield to a range of pastels. The grid of red plastic caps is now dotted with blacks, whites, yellows, and blues. Inside the bottles, a passage of blues gives onto a dark block of greens and browns at the dead center of the arc. The racks’ rectilinear geometry makes reference to the columns of the building’s interior façade. The curving of the liquid surfaces inside the bottles, which have varying amounts of headspace, echoes the segmented shadows and reflections in the ring of windows up above, across the courtyard. The bottles themselves refract the play of the courtyard fountain during visiting hours, with the condensation droplets in some of them turning prismatic in the daylight.

As the sun sinks, light bounces off windows and jabs through the ranks. Later, at dusk, the passage of blues softly glows. The bottom of a plastic soda bottle has a five-part symmetry, but when seen from outside, tilted in a rack and hit by the artificial lighting that fills the recesses beneath the building’s hovering ring at night, it gleams in the pattern of a classic six-arm asterisk. The competing, cooperating symmetries lead the eye from outside the window-wall to the spiky, perforated globe of inflated white kitchen garbage bags across the lobby. Tethered by their tightly cinched drawstrings into a geodesic structure of pentagons and hexagons, the bags are pierced at their sides and spray-glued together, so that air may pass between them. (Steinhilber says inspiration, in the form of a punctured bag, struck as he was taking out the trash.) A Shop-Vac set to blow fills them, and the piece blossoms like a thistly cybernetic flower. After a few minutes, the noisy motor shuts off, and the bags deflate, first quickly and then more slowly, collapsing together into a low pad of soft plastic. The piece keeps dying until the instant it is reborn, the crinkling quiet broken by a jolting electrical click and a motorized rush of air.

When Steinhilber exhibited a smaller black-bag version of this piece last December at Decatur Blue’s “DB Sides,” it seemed to indicate a new maturity. But by the time the show closed, the structure, so robust a few weeks before, had sagged to assume a sea-urchin-like profile; many of the long green balloons it rested on had popped. Before this year, quick decrepitude was a fate that typically befell Steinhilber’s pieces, which had a reputation for looking great at the opening but being in shambles a few weeks later. His spring 2002 solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art (which, out-of-towners should know, is nothing like a museum of contemporary art) was pretty much a disaster, with poignantly aspirational prices attached to works involving liquid color whose technical problems had not been solved. When I went, pigments had precipitated unflatteringly in one piece and left unsightly stains in another. Claims that it was the intention of the artist to let the materials do as they would have never sat well with me. It’s one thing to traffic in the ephemeral; it’s another thing for an artwork not to last the month a show is up. Last-minute viewers of last year’s Steinhilber shows were often seeing only the dregs of the work that critics had praised.

Although it’s still too early in “Directions”‘ three-month run to know for sure how things will hold up, Steinhilber appears to have become more attentive to the durability of his work this time around. The garbage bags now have the benefit of security and conservation teams. The soda bottles have been tested for freezing, and keeping them capped will prevent the kind of dust and mold problems that disfigured the Color School stripe-painting homage he showed last fall at Signal 66. Steinhilber has additionally reserved the right to rework the outdoor piece in accordance with the changing seasons, taking advantage of its vulnerability to reassert its site-specificity.

The fourth piece at the Hirshhorn should fare as well as an earlier version shown at Signal 66 did. An assemblage of dry cleaner’s paper-wrapped hangers dangles next to the top of one of the museum’s escalators, where its array of white triangles cascades, chain by twisting chain, to the floor. The system moves from harmony to dissonance and back as the tipping shapes jostle their neighbors. As the eye scans upward into a deep ceiling recess, the low-angle view mandated by the building’s geometry throws the orderly sequences into a flurry. The impression is of a flock of snow-white cranes startled into flight—and of the whole tangled procession being chronicled by Muybridge or Marey.

It’s more than coincidental that this piece, though still successful, is at once the most durable and least satisfying in this strong show. Steinhilber is at his best when nearly betraying his materials, rigging them for purposes to which they are constitutionally unfit. This is why they’ve often gone south on him. The trick is for him to keep them balanced in whatever state of aesthetic tension he has discovered for them without having them stage an entropic rebellion.

The hangers are simply doing what comes naturally, albeit en masse. In this respect, the work weakly echoes that of Tara Donovan, a Virginia Commonwealth University and Corcoran grad who showed at Hemphill Fine Arts and the Corcoran in the late ’90s but left the area for New York around the time Steinhilber moved to D.C., three years ago. (Steinhilber has been also accused of treading on the turf of Tom Friedman, but mainly on evidence of a toothpaste wall drawing that is nothing like the older artist’s earlier toothpaste-based work.) Donovan’s strength lies in identifying provocative ways to allow huge amounts of ordinary materials (drinking straws, toothpicks, roofing felt) to do whatever it is they normally do. Steinhilber’s efforts along similar lines never seem so grand.

If Steinhilber is attuned to the intrinsic properties of his materials, it is his capacity for identifying and exploiting their latent possibilities, both physical and optical, that makes his development exciting to watch. Constructing complex, often labile systems that dismay and delight in equal measure, he’s a quizzical combination of visual poet and metaphysical prop comic, a kitchen-sink illusionist who feels no need to hide his tricks. CP