PRINT December 2007

Bruce Hainley

A BLACK RUBBER DOG TOY is a key component of all but one piece on view in Haim Steinbach’s most recent show, held at Sonnabend Gallery, his first New York solo exhibition in a decade. Brand-named Kong, the bulbous, three-tiered chew operates as a sign of punctuation marking the syntactical phrasing of objects, all the while looking like a sinus-clearing butt plug. Steinbach has said that the thing’s shape evokes a Brancusi. With the matte sheen of plastique, the toy also evokes a grenade.

According to the Kong website, Joe Markham founded the company in 1976, after finding a way to keep his German shepherd, Fritz, from gnawing on rocks, which were destroying the dog’s teeth. One day, or so the story goes, Markham was repairing a Volkswagen van, throwing the parts near Fritz “to see if he could be coaxed away from his destructive dinner. Radiator hoses didn’t work—neither did anything else until [Markham] pulled off a suspension part.” The historical and social, not to mention fictive (given the oddity of the promotional tale), context of objects—their specificity and erotic valence, the resonance of their names as well as what they are and how they appear—is never irrelevant in considering Steinbach’s work. Perhaps it’s our blithely ongoing militarized state in combination with the creeping Germanicity of the gewgaw’s corporate fundamentals, or the knowledge that the artist deploys the Kong model known as “Extreme,” which the company advertises as “now being used worldwide by police K-9, drug enforcement, and military K-9 teams,” that lycanthropizes the innocuous into the ominous: Steinbach’s sculptures provide an opportunity to consider what might be called the unconscious of objects.

In matter grey, 2005, two Kongs center—as if double colons—an analogical situation contrasting two metal ducts and two rocks on an ash gray shelf, which looks buffed by sand and surf. While comparing the designed with the natural and connecting the metallic to the mineral through structural ore, the silvery shimmer of the hardware and the mottling of the stones transform the rubber into basalt or elegant Japanese ceramic. The effect is Malibu minimalism, wabi-sabi and chic. Connoting a contemplative garden through material acuity, affect, and arrangement, it reaches satori in scare quotes. But even when scariness is offered in a Halloween mode (orange and black toolboxes on a black and orange shelf; pumpkin doormats next to alert yellow warning signs; Hulk fists and a ceramic jack-o’-lantern), the stuff displayed, as if obeying a martial law of playthings, compasses foreboding. The one piece without any Kongs at all pits—on an astringent white shelf—two nasty toy rats gnawing on bloody surgical bandages against bricks stacked and ready to be hurled.

In one of the most attuned engagements with Steinbach’s gray matter, artist Lisa Lapinski has written, “The logic of the shelves is clear. . . . The interior angles of Steinbach’s shelves are constant, always 90, 50, and 40 degrees. The measurements of the three sides of the triangular piece change to accommodate the objects. The formula never changes. The shelf works are fractions: the things in the world divided by the minimalist object.” No more but certainly no less important than the things he puts on them, Steinbach’s shelves, with acerbic variations of surface, color, and partition, can summon the brash vulgarity of Wal-Mart just as easily as the solemnity of grave markers and reliquaries. The sexy leather affect of everlast kong I–1 and its counterpart everlast kong III–1—each sculpture juxtaposing a black Everlast medicine ball with, respectively, a lone Kong or a trio of Kongs, on slick black shelves—sours into a meditation on health and life everlasting after the meth wears off; seen in proximity to a piece titled the village people, 2007, when their dates of production, 1990–2006, are considered, they turn elegiac.

Steinbach documents our Jetztzeit’s solace and vicious truths in things caught on the virgule of art. His greatest artistic predecessor is Joseph Cornell, who collected culture’s penny-arcade castoffs to document the violence and perfumed drift of America’s so-called postwar dream life. Certain Cornell arrangements—aviaries, shooting galleries—sometimes appear behind glass shattered as if by bullets, interiors splattered with sinister verisimilitude; one was dedicated to Dien Bien Phu. In his lepidopterological quest to net the exquisite moment, Cornell understood that fun was just a flutter away from drive. Lapinski suggests that Steinbach’s practice also relates to still life, but when he collects, his nature morte executes a brand-new vanitas.

Earlier this year, curator Bob Nickas delivered a bracing talk about artists who leave the art world or stop making art. After reading from Lee Lozano’s writings and showing slides of work by Laurie Parsons, among others, he concluded by saying that “the wrong artists stop making work” (i.e., the good ones—rather than the countless duds you sometimes wish would not just stop making things but disappear altogether). An unlikely corollary of that situation would be those artists shelved by the way their work has been received and dismissed—which has certainly been the case for Steinbach, historically speaking, most notably Benjamin H. D. Buchloh’s attempts at reducing the work to “commodity sculpture” that undoes “not a single discursive frame” (a mealymouthed reiteration of which appears in Art Since 1900, that narrow history of art that fancies itself a responsible textbook). This is almost incomprehensible in a context where, say, Isa Genzken—no frenemy of shopping—is regularly championed. (A rowdy debate about the two artists could start with Genzken’s statement that “with any sculpture you have to be able to say, although this is not a ready-made, it could be one. . . . It must have a certain relation to reality.”) And it is tedious as a new generation of dutiful academics embrace artists, from Tom Burr to Rachel Harrison, indebted to Steinbach’s usually overlooked (in the United States) critical model—but then, I grow sadly more convinced that it is in fact unchallenged modes of art history and critique that have lately petrified into sheer commodity, not undoing but rather bejeweling discursive frames of their own institutional aggrandizement. For such intellectual constipation, Steinbach now generously provides what I’m not sure if I should call the volatile supposition or suppository of a Kong.

Wittgenstein begins Philosophical Investigations by quoting Augustine’s Confessions on the naming of objects. Steinbach pulls his quotations directly from the world; his confessions deranged in glorious 3-D approach the unnameable.

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum.