“Dan Steinhilber”

At the Museum of Contemporary Art

to March 23

American University MFA candidate Dan Steinhilber, 29, makes sleek, site-specific installations of paintinglike objects and sculptures built from plastic containers filled with liquid watercolors, diluted inks, and thinned-out acrylic paints. Over the past year, Steinhilber, who is originally from Wisconsin and came to Washington in August 2000, has managed to generate a fair amount of local buzz, showing his works in “Futur Skulptur” at the McLean Project for the Arts, “The Anne Barlow Show” at D.C.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and two group shows, “Maximum Capacity” and “Multiplicity,” at Gallery Four in Baltimore.

His debut solo show, now on display at MOCA, only partly delivers on the promise of these earlier installations, largely because of problems in execution and a misfit between the largest work and the rather small gallery space. Although “Dan Steinhilber” showcases just five pieces, it varies so much in quality that the impact of his better work is softened: Although some of the pieces are both subtle and stunning, others are disappointingly flawed executions of good ideas.

Steinhilber’s work, a sort of Office Depot minimalism made up of water- and pigment-filled Ziploc bags, balloons, stretches of bubble wrap, and clear plastic takeout containers, attempts to preserve the normally ephemeral beauty of wet, saturated color. To pull off one of his pieces, the artist has to control—or at least use to his advantage—gravity, evaporative processes, and the inherent instability of temperature-sensitive volumes of contained air and liquid. There is, consequently, a fragility to these works that goes beyond the inherent transience of a temporary gallery installation. Some of them will evaporate over time, changing color as the receding water intensifies the concentration of pigment. Others will expand and contract as the volumes change temperature.

Steinhilber asserts that these changes are part of his artistic project. “It’s intentional that I want the paint to do just what it wants to do,” he explains. Yet this aim strikes an uneasy balance with his other stated goal, of wanting to “make watercolor wet again” by fixing the freshness and clarity of liquid color. The result is that decay and transformation sometimes win out over preservation.

A case in point is the clump of more than 100 inflated balloons that hangs, chandelierlike, in a semicircle of descending layers from MOCA’s ceiling. (Like all of Steinhilber’s pieces, it is untitled.) The balloons contain small pools of colored fluid, in varying tones of green, brown, red, and purple. Some balloons have shifted positions over time—indeed, the orbs are hung so low that gallerygoers keep knocking into them, twirling the whole mass of them around—and the water has left little round scars of pigment on their interiors as the piece has shifted. At night, when the gallery is cold, the volume of air in the balloons contracts, moving the water further. During the day, the balloons expand again, like a living creature breathing.

Like the magnolia tree that Steinhilber claims inspired it, the installation does its work of changing almost invisibly, becoming marked over time with a series of growth rings. As conceptually appropriate as they are, however, the rings mar an otherwise beautiful piece, creating linear forms that seem out of place among these rounded orbs and liquid pools. The work’s presentation is additionally hampered by the gallery’s low ceiling; to get the best view, Steinhilber says, you have to lie down on the concrete floor and stare up through the balloon tree’s “leaves.” From this vantage point, the light glances through the water in jewellike streaks, giving the pigmented liquid the look of beveled stained glass, or of dozens of colored contact lenses staring down at you. But having to lie on the floor to see this piece is about as pleasant as hiding out under a bush—a far cry from the sensation of sitting under a magnolia that Steinhilber sought to mimic.

Given his thoroughly contemporary materials, Steinhilber is a surprisingly romantic artist. He did his undergraduate work at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and comes from a traditionalist background of drawing and painting by observation; before starting to make installations in 1994, he painted figures and landscapes. His concerns for the land and a post-art-school sojourn doing plein-air painting in California continue to influence his work, which he sees as trying to replicate the experience of looking at light in the natural world, but within an artificial context. “This is an artificial space. I use plastic. It helps me remember I’m making something artificial,” says Steinhilber, who cites Corot as more of an influence than any contemporary artist.

Not that you’d guess this from viewing the works themselves, which are as sleekly modern as glass skyscrapers. Indeed, most of the pieces are more interesting for their formal qualities and innovative use of the reflective properties of water and plastic than for their conceptual background. Most successful in this respect are a pair of ethereal, wall-mounted “paintings.” The entire left-hand wall of the gallery is taken up by one of these panels, made of overlapping layers of flat plastic tubing, each filled about an inch deep with a differently tinted volume of water. The colors in the panel are pearlescent, all whites and iridescent pinks and subtle greens, with slices of amber dancing across as the light from ceiling lamps refract through the water. If you run your hand down the horizontal piece, you can make the colors dance as the water flows from one side of each tube to the other. There’s a certain thrill in making these waves, as well as in being permitted to reach out and grasp the art with more than just your eyes, especially because the layered panel is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. It is only in the barest sense a painting—and yet it is also immediately understandable as one.

Another wall-mounted piece, a 17-inch-wide column, is made from seven rows of 8-and-a-half-by-11-inch sheet protectors intended to hold pages in three-ring binders. Instead of slipping paper into them, Steinhilber has filled them with colored water and fanned them out from the wall, creating luminous cells arrayed like sections of an orange. The pigments in suspension within the cells have sorted out by weight, creating soft color gradients that turn blue-gray and pink-green-purple, seemingly trapped between weightlessness and solidity in a gorgeous array of tones that shift with the light. The top edge of each of the seven rows, where the protectors lack a seal, is open to the air, and thin white lines appear to float on top of the water inside—an effect created by light shining through the thin strips of water pulled up the sheets’ plastic walls by surface tension.

A bubble-wrap painting on display represents Steinhilber’s second showing of such a work. At Gallery Four last winter, he chose radiant spring greens and deep blues for his colors, which he injected into the bubbles with a syringe. The effect is much less impressive this time around: Steinhilber drew his palette from a patch of wet, dead grass on a sidewalk in Georgetown, and the pigments appear to have congealed in green lumps, separating out from the clear-brown-to-amber fluids inside each blister. It looks as if the bubbles have algae growing inside them, and despite the row of amber shadows they cast on the wall, the general effect is inelegant. Instead of offering pigments hanging delicately in suspension, the piece looks as if it were filled with a supersaturated solution that has begun to precipitate out and yearns to return to solid form.

A newer—and far more compelling—approach involves the use of plastic containers expressly meant to hold fluid: drinking straws. Steinhilber has suspended a thick semicircular stack of them from a strawlike pipe on the ceiling of the gallery using a long length of clear plastic tape. The straws are oriented horizontally and pressed parallel to the wall; looked at straight on, their hollow ends are on the left and right edges of the stack. The right side was dipped in midnight-blue and deep-purple paint before Steinhilber balanced the stack against the wall, and capillary action keeps a small volume of the colored liquid inside the end of each tube. But not every straw is completely filled; some have only a scattering of pigment around their edges, and, as the water evaporates, the installation becomes lighter. As each straw dries out, its near-blackness is punctured with stars. Over time, it is becoming day.

This piece again finds Steinhilber playing with optical effects: Looking through it telescopes people on the other side of the gallery, turning them into a blur of color beyond the blurred colors of the straws. But it’s also the piece that most successfully reconciles the two warring impulses of the artist’s project, allowing neither decay nor preservation the upper hand. Here, color is truly fluid, and it has been allowed to create a work that moves from moment to moment without complication. CP