New York

Haim Steinbach

Sonnabend Gallery

It perhaps should come as no surprise that Haim Steinbach’s practice has seemed increasingly relevant during the past decade, a period in which the rituals around commercial objects have become all the more pervasive and resolved in their choreographies of desire. Indeed, the heightened attention to design in mass culture—its near-total application in commerce, from the making of products to the construction of display space, at the service of rendering life itself more a matter of lifestyle—would seem an immediately resonant context for an artist long interested in the ways in which our subjectivity is inflected by the things with which we choose to surround ourselves. One might even productively compare corporate focus groups, which seek to articulate and refine the emotional and intellectual associations consumers have with their belongings, with Steinbach’s recent projects, in which he has interviewed, for example, individuals about their relationships to the objects populating their homes and offices. (Intriguingly, the resulting videos have on occasion been shown alongside arrangements of the pieces discussed.) But whereas the focus group is steeped in a kind of mercenary anthropology, Steinbach’s endeavors hold up a mirror not only to the symbolic operations attending the creation of exchange value but also to the real psychological dynamics that underpin such identification.

The risk for contemporary viewers is that they might read Steinbach’s practice—which he says is all about creating a sense of context—solely in terms of this single all-too-familiar context. For while the artist is interested in the histories and associations invoked and evoked by the (most often) mass-produced objects he places on his signature shelves, he brings those aspects into relief only by setting them within a tautly structured system of play, where an object is seen not by itself but rather amid the societal perspective lines generated by the objects around it. In this regard, central to Steinbach’s latest exhibition at Sonnabend is his long-held belief that his arrangements have a “linguistic” character, with all the different elements informing one another—metonymically, in many cases—to generate or dissemble meaning as if in a sentence. In one work, for example, two anatomical models of eyeballs sit beside a bust of Spider-Man, which is placed in turn next to two conical witch’s hats. Here, the doubling of objects seems to underscore (with dumb, deadpan humor) the magical, superhuman power of the branded character in the middle. Most important, however, is a black dog-chew at the very end of the line, which Steinbach calls a kind of punctuation, a period, comma, or colon: a device for displacement, in other words, intended to draw one’s attention to the cultural grammar of the objects on view.

This dog “kong” appeared in all but one of Steinbach’s new works, in fact, rhyming visually in one instance with the black point of a toucan nose on three boxes of Froot Loops; and similarly engaging the black wheels of Tonka toy trucks and custodial equipment, bouncing the viewer’s eye from one work to the next all the while. But nowhere was its structural significance so clear as when a troika of these chews was set beside an Everlast medicine ball. Here the object’s simple geometry—evocative, Steinbach says, of Brancusi (though some might recall Paul McCarthy and Jason Rhoades’s “Shit Plugs”)—is amplified by the ball, such that each suggests an idealized form even while clearly something produced for play and distraction. Art is, it seems, placed once again at the intersection of mind and body, high and low; and one cannot overlook the fact that many pieces on view denoted physical labor, if not a class divide (between those who would use these things and those who would contemplate them) outright. If Steinbach’s earliest efforts wielded appropriation for the sake of an institutional critique without didacticism, that ability to crack open the context of fine art—by casting an absurdist’s eye on its operations—is clearly still sharply honed, and is certainly welcome.

Tim Griffin