New York

Haim Steinbach

Sonnabend Gallery

Haim Steinbach seems set on hiding it away. Closeting things in boxes, dressers, and drawers marks a virtual return of repression for an artist who gained notoriety with his cultivated display of consumer items. For Steinbach, these indiscreet objects of desire seemed to constitute a unique esthetic field that could be reconceptualized, revisualized, and resystematized as a kind of post-Formalism. Arranged into capitalist still lifes, these objects—Nike sneakers, detergent containers, and lava lamps—had never looked more alluring or “unique” in their ordinariness.

In his latest show, yanking open a plain wooden box equipped with a rope pulley revealed an elegant pile of synthetic dog shit. This contraption—in conjunction with a locked wooden box, from which emanated a whining-dog sound, and a vertical corner piece featuring a series of drawers, each containing a different sized dog chewbones—suggests Steinbach has begun to scavenge in territory more subjectively interior than the supermarket aisle. That Steinbach gradually began to establish some distance from his romance with the shelf unit—reevaluating the signature element that had fixed the identity/identification of his language throughout the ’80s—was evident in his last show. It underscored, particularly in the gallery-specific Untitled (barn wall with pail of milk), 1991, an interplay between conditions of display and concealment, object and installation.

Such concerns have been more fully articulated in the artist’s most recent works, which carve out a new place for the viewer by triggering a behavioral inversion. Instead of being immediately confronted by the artifacts of mass culture, we are guided toward an interactive relationship by a set of visual and material cues that signal areas of physical “participation.” Two wall-bound boxes gleam with chrome-laminate skins, mirroring our moves as we open the drawers to reveal a few loose dimes in one, and a pair of scissors in the other. A remystification of the mundane for poetic ends? A strategy of defamiliarization?

Admittedly, Steinbach’s strategy here may seem somewhat transparent: select from a different range of artifacts and defer immediate visual gratification. Yet this conceptual/design maneuver is skillfully articulated through a neo-Minimalist idiom that in fact enhances the sensuality of the objects: they are at once domesticated and exoticized by their containers. Steinbach’s work has always acknowledged that Minimal art’s claims of literal objecthood reflected a denial of its indirect affirmation of industrial society. These new works offer the viewer a psychological hide-and-seek test site: unveil the object, and then perhaps, at the very least, the viewer will experience visual gratifications that they imagine are being denied them.

Whether his manipulations of anticipation and desire produce a unique psychological space or are merely clever remains in question. The six boxes adorned with white laminated fronts contain handkerchiefs embroidered with different names (“Sean,” “Rebecca,” “George”), suggesting a highly mediated form of portraiture—open a drawer and uncover, in Proustian fashion, a world of melancholic remembrance. Here, while the apparent evidence of individuality is delicately submitted for public inspection, no verifiable identities can be recovered from this abstract seriality. But what of those rocks deposited in the drawers of bureaulike structures? Well, taken in tandem with the oddly pathetic canine pieces, Steinbach may be testing our threshold of tolerance for the abjectly abstruse.

Joshua Decter