New York

Haim Steinbach, western hills, 2011, plastic-laminated wood shelf, ceramic cookie jar, aluminum garbage can, wooden stacking toy, 41 x 21 1/2 x 62 1/4".

Haim Steinbach, western hills, 2011, plastic-laminated wood shelf, ceramic cookie jar, aluminum garbage can, wooden stacking toy, 41 x 21 1/2 x 62 1/4".

Haim Steinbach

Tanya Bonakdar Gallery

Haim Steinbach, western hills, 2011, plastic-laminated wood shelf, ceramic cookie jar, aluminum garbage can, wooden stacking toy, 41 x 21 1/2 x 62 1/4".

In an interview published in Artforum’s April 2003 issue, Haim Steinbach discussed what he saw as the ideal system for pricing what he made: “I devised a formula by which there would be a price for the work—plus the price of the objects. Let’s say a shelf has three cornflakes boxes and six ceramic ghosts on it. If the ceramic ghosts are $10 apiece, that’s $60; the boxes, at $2 each, would make $6, bringing the total of the objects to $66. So if the price of a given work is $12,000, that’s $12,066.”

The artist’s mode of reaching a price point is worth remarking on, because it lays the foundation for an ontological question. If, as Steinbach has it, the price of “the work” is distinct from that of “the objects” that largely comprise that work, just where, we might ask, does the art begin and end? More specifically, were one to subtract the (rather paltry, at least in value) objects from the work, what would be left, exactly? To this end, Steinbach’s method calls to mind the way Lacan breaks down the difficult concept of desire. Resorting to a kind of arithmetic, he states, “Desire is neither the appetite for satisfaction nor the demand for love, but the difference that results from the subtraction of the first from the second.” In other words, desire is a supplement, a thing left over, or, put differently, an effect irreducible to the very conditions that produced it.

During the 1980s, Steinbach was shoehorned over and over into discussions of commodity fetishism, simulation, and neo-geo abstraction; but many early critics, in celebrations and denunciations of his work alike, seemed to overlook a key element of what he actually does, which is to assemble groupings of things. These groupings are not, as he has pointed out, representations of objects but presentations of them, and in so being, they may conjure conversations regarding the readymade and its relationship to appropriation, say, or repetition via mass production, but such discussions are only tangential to the brute material fact of what’s actually there.

Steinbach’s first exhibition for Tanya Bonakdar Gallery included text works and installations, as well as six of his now signature groupings of objects on laminated wedge-shaped shelves, including, among others, one with a handmade Mr. Peanut figure alongside a Kong rubber chew toy (the two objects’ bulbous bodies rhyming); another featuring a folksy mermaid statue alongside two bright-green frog-shaped containers and another black chew toy; and a third with a small metal garbage can, a squat cartoon-sheriff cookie jar, and a brightly colored child’s stacking toy. That these configurations have the feel of visual puns—with the black chew toy, so weirdly lewd, but also just a chew toy, tenaciously reappearing—doesn’t take away from their unexpected poetics.

If desire is what Steinbach’s work produces, it arrives with blunt, unexpected force. That might be because our drive to acquire and organize things is, in part, a conduit through which we understand ourselves. Less a comment on capitalism than an investigation of the production of the self, Steinbach’s work acknowledges the fragility of subjecthood—that our funny, fragile egos are bound up in the unexpectedly rich terrain of the knickknacks and bric-a-brac we collect and covet. In a multipart work reminiscent of his installations from the late ’70s and early ’80s, a small print hung on found wallpaper read: “I went looking for peaches and came back with a pair.” The equation, though fatally flawed, produces a remainder.

Johanna Burton