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Where the Styrofoam Roams

Dan Steinhilber Choreographs A Dazzling Dance Out Of Polystyrene And Forced Air

BLOW ME: Installation view of Dan Steinhilber's lovely mess

By Bret McCabe | Posted 10/11/2006

Front Room: Dan Steinhilber

At the Baltimore Museum of Art through Feb. 18, 2007

It never looks the same way twice. Doesn't matter if you spend 12 minutes or two hours in the gallery, you won't see or feel anything redundant. White Styrofoam packing peanuts whirl in the air and whorl on the ground. A modest roar revs up every now and again, just loud enough to make the voices in your head have to speak a little louder. And you're only allowed to venture so far into the gallery, in between a row of air blowers and a floor-resting orange metal barricade. Where the black plastic remains covering the room's pristine wood floors, it makes the ground feel a bit squishy. What you see is what you get--and if you just look quickly, all you're going to see is something that kinda/sorta resembles a mess in need of a good cleaning.

Just don't judge Dan Steinhilber's new installation at the Baltimore Museum of Art by that cursory glance. The Washington-based artist inaugurates the BMA's new experimental project space with a spry gallery-engulfing installation-qua-environment that sparks a concatenating chain of responses if you take a moment to drink in its amorphous, bustling beauty. And while it's easy to be seduced by its intellectual cheekiness, don't forget to admire its surreptitious pleasure. Yes, Steinhilber has transformed a white-walled box into a churning sea of quotidian debris, but only a foolish kill-joy would set eyes on it and not come away with some mirthful wonder at its undaunted moments of incipient beauty.

For this circuslike space of ambient sculpture, Steinhilber initially covered the entire floor with garbage bag-looking black plastic, and then ripped up a smashed lima bean portion in the part of the room where gallery-goers enter, leaving the puckered rips to fray and tear as shoes scuff over them. In the front right corner of the gallery Steinhilber has dropped a few wheelbarrows' worth of packing peanuts on the floor. He focuses them into that lone corner with an arc of four air blowers, mounted such that their mouths exhale all the peanuts into the corner and up the wall. In the back of the gallery rests about four or five times the above amount of packing peanuts--if you need to crate and freight a Buick, Steinhilber has you covered. A rotating cast of floor-crawling robotic vacuums roams through the rubble, sometimes pushing the peanuts along, at other times burrowing beneath the pile and making like a dachshund flitting through fresh snow. Hanging from the ceiling is a rectangular chandelier of electric garage-door openers and air blowers. Each blower is attached to one of the openers, which every so often pulls the blower back and forth along its horizontal path and scattering a whoosh of peanuts in some direction; when all four are in motion it looks like some futuristic torture device for snuffleupaguses.

Resist the urge to overintellectualize Steinhilber's choice of materials. Yes, his career is dotted with the so-called re-purposing of common, everyday objects--much as many 20th-century artists have. The Styrofoam packing peanuts are merely his latest muse, also seen in a bizarrely entertaining video piece included in this show, which features the artist filling his apartment floor with the almost weightless white zigzags and then taking a handheld blower to them and sending them all into a spasmodically dizzying dance of activity around his home, looking like scattered flying insects maniacally buzzing some nighttime light.

Such moments of transformative power have snaked through Steinhilber's smart, lovely works in recent years, which are almost always sculptural with a twist. He has turned clothes hangers and metal rods into a Gehry-ish wave of vertical movement. Garbage bags and a vacuum cleaner become a room-sized geodesic dome of taut white plastic. Plastic carry-out food containers get stacked ad infinitum into a pearly, translucent cube. In each instance, what's most impressive is the not his choice of materials but how he chooses to use them, creating disarmingly affective pieces capable of engrossing visual aplomb.

And Steinhilber graciously consigns those dramatic moments to elements totally out of his control with this installation. It takes some patience, but if you stay with the room long enough, eventually all its various moving parts eke out some unspoken mechanical symphony. All four blowers conspire to send mini-spirals of peanuts into the air like inconsequential funnel clouds. The corner-facing air blowers create a churning waterfall of eddying peanuts rushing toward the wall, shooting up it for a stretch and cascading back down into the circulating morass. It's a sneaky feeling, as if you've caught a sleeping tiger at the zoo who has slowly decided to wake up and do what it is he does.

And just as quickly as the room has come alive it settles back into some resting equilibrium, a quiet before the storm. It lends the piece some measure of shy pathos, this obviously intricate structure of electricity, chance, and home appliances that only stumbles across its reason to be every so often, creating a feeling that falls somewhere between Felix Gonzalez-Torres' give/take conceptual dialogues and Ricky Swallow's coy, almost churlish DIYittude. Best of all, Steinhilber's exhibition is the first in what, we can only hope, is an ongoing, constantly evolving foray into the BMA bringing nontraditional and unusual contemporary art into its purview. It's a curatorial strategy that has created--and added--strong contemporary works from emerging artists to collections at Minneapolis' Walker Art Center and the Dallas Museum of Art. And if Front Room: Dan Steinhilber is just a taste of what BMA senior curator for contemporary art Darsie Alexander has in store for the coming years, here's to enjoying seeing more of the unusual and playful alongside the French and Impressionist at the BMA.

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