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Improv Art

Dan Steinhilber brings balloons, hangers, a tarp and packs of gum to the CAMH

There's a piece in "Perspectives 151: Dan Steinhilber" at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston that looks like the work of a manic clown. The kind of balloons traditionally used by annoying children's-party entertainers to make hats and animals have been twisted, amassed and woven together into a giant dense rectangle. Together they hang on the wall like a brightly colored, inflatable abstract-expressionist painting.

Contemporary society is filled with all kinds of crap, and an increasing number of artists are using banal, mass-produced consumer detritus as building-block components for their art. Steinhilber is one of them. If you do it right, cheap, dumb materials can transcend their origins and become amazing. A recent local example of this was Tara Donovan's 2003 installation "Haze" at Rice Gallery, in which a wall of plastic drinking straws became ethereal. Here, Steinhilber doesn't fare quite as well. He manages a couple of clever works and a lot of one-liners.

The balloon painting will probably become more interesting with time. Several weeks after the opening, parts of it were deflating, which actually seems to help the work. I wonder what it will look like in a month. Something about a mass of pitiful, half-dead balloons seems promising, but I'm not sure that was part of the artist's intent.

In the show's strongest work, air blows packing peanuts into the corner.
Courtesy of the CAMH
In the show's strongest work, air blows packing peanuts into the corner.

Air is an element in another Steinhilber work. Three high-powered blowers force air along the floor toward a pile of greenish Styrofoam packing peanuts in the corner; the air continually blows, forever shifting the pile back into the corner. The piece is participatory -- visitors have taken turns sitting in front of the fans and blocking the airflow, watching the pile of Styrofoam rearrange itself. It's certainly a new take on a kinetic work, and it's the strongest piece in the show.

Steinhilber's massive cube of stacked clear-plastic to-go containers shoots for transcendent beauty and almost makes it. The square clamshell boxes, the kind used for sandwiches, are partially filled with pastel-colored water made with dishwashing liquid. It might be spectacular with daylight passing through it, or spot-lit in a darkened room. But in the CAMH's basement, with all the other works, it doesn't come off that well. More dramatic lighting might help. The water is slowly evaporating, so this piece too is changing with time. But again, you don't really get a sense that the work's evolution was a big part of Steinhilber's intentions. It feels more like a side issue.

Light is the primary element in a work for which Steinhilber has suspended one of those cafeteria heat lamps over an empty white pedestal. The coppery light shines unevenly down on the pedestal; it looks like it's burning the paint, but you can't tell. Again, you aren't quite sure what he's aiming for. Is it the viewer's unfulfilled expectation of seeing an object on the pedestal, the color created by the light or, perhaps, the long-term effects of the heat lamp?

Too often Steinhilber just doesn't do enough with his materials. He made a giant minimalist "painting" in which a translucent plastic tarp is stretched over a wooden frame like painter's canvas. The material has a degree of luminosity but no real staying power. In another work, a slender band of multicolored stripes on the wall turns out to be sticks of gum placed side by side. After the viewer's initial amused realization, the piece falls flat. Maybe making the work on a more epic scale would help...perhaps Steinhilber should have used really long stripes of gum?

The same thing happens with his tornado-shaped construction of plastic hangers, which are strung together and hanging from the ceiling. A frustrating tangle of hangers might have evoked a visceral reaction in most people, but this one is too tidily linked together. It might work better if its scale were more overwhelming and it were less exact.

While Steinhilber comes up with some promising ideas, he doesn't push them far enough. There doesn't seem to be a conceptual consistency in the way he addresses his materials. Too much of the show feels like an "improv" exercise in art-making. You imagine someone handing him a stack of hangers, a tarp, packs of gum and bags of balloons and starting the clock. His solutions aren't bad, but he could do more. The show amuses while you're there, but little stays with you once you leave.

 
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