New York

Haim Steinbach

Jay Gorney Modern Art

Haim Steinbach’s method of production keeps people talking a blue streak: how he buys things and displays them on shelves in the gallery space, and how if you buy one of them, the price of “the goods” is added to the price of “the work.” This often leads to an entertaining discussion as to what “the work” is: object or idea. Then there are the rumors about how Steinbach doesn’t even like to touch the pieces, relegating installation of them to just about anybody other than himself. And once issues of display, purchase, payment, and installation are out of the way, the discussion usually shifts to the issue of wear and tear: how will these boxed items and discarded shelves age in storage, or will they simply be forgotten there amongst so many other collectibles and throwaways? Steinbach’s best work seems to be about greater issues than flagrant consumerism or the semiotics of money; it hints at a place beyond fetishism, a kind of deprivation having to do with the search for the perfect model.

Steinbach’s recent exhibition featured only two works that carry on this inclination. Coat of arms, 1988 was commissioned by Gruppo GFT, an Italian menswear conglomerate that first displayed the piece at its booth last April, at the Moda Italia trade show in New York. Its inclusion in this show seemed to carry the artist’s project back home: from life to art to life and back to art again. The piece resembles an exhibitionist’s armoire: split in half, each side functions as an open display case. On one side hang four men’s suits designed by Valentino and four by Giorgio Armani, and on the other side, four suits sculpted from wood that Steinbach commissioned in Venice. This ideal closet is topped off (literally) with four gleaming brass tubas and a classical figure chopping a piece of wood with an ax. The work takes the level of self-awareness in Steinbach’s art to a new extreme. The wooden suits tell of a perfectly tailored idealization, a hyperreal rendering of that which is without flaw; perfect and also wholly fake. Steinbach’s picture of symmetrical idealization seems to be created in its own image: the concentrated model of the beautiful fraud.

The second work sat in the basement gallery and took the form of a diptych: two plinth constructions facing each other from opposing walls. Untitled (elephant foot stools, elephant skull), 1988, looks like a Dada burlesque show sketch, with its five funny foot stools modeled in the image of an elephant’s foot, and its real elephant skull on the wall in front of it. This work seemed to revert to the old Steinbach; its battle between “real” and “fake” was rendered perhaps a bit too literally. Nonetheless, Steinbach manifests his talent for conjuring a deliberate yet slightly deranged assemblage. The real intonation here is in the suggestion of an unfathomable phenomenon: the opportunity to shop for anything. The skull could well be fake, and the elephant foot stools real. What’s significant is he bought them somewhere.

But Steinbach is more than just a man with a shopping cart, and he proved it with this show. His work says as much about how we think as it does about how we live. Like other artists currently working within this territory (John Armleder and John Dogg are two that come to mind), he uses consumerism and readymade-representation only as a means to an end. Steinbach attempts to make some sense out of the post-Pop age by observing and displaying the likes, dislikes, and refuse of a culture hellbent on having it all.

Christian Leigh