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Dan Steinhilber: Modern Alchemist

Dan Steinhilber, Untitled, 2009, trash can, fan, trash bags

Dan Steinhilber, Untitled, 2009, trash can, fan, trash bags (Photo: Jon May)

Black trash bags. White packing peanuts. Coat hangers. Balloons. These mass-produced throwaways are the dross that artist Dan Steinhilber, CAS/MFA '02, uses to work his alchemy. In his hands, lowly items are transformed through manipulation of air, liquid, and earth into visually and psychologically arresting objects and environments. The layers of meaning he packs into his pieces have brought Steinhilber, 38, critical notice and exhibitions at such prestigious venues as Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and Art Basel in Miami.

Steinhilber’s October 12 slide and video presentation, part of the Katzen Center’s Fall Arts Colloquia, was an overview of his work since AU. A piece created for a friend’s backyard, consisting of a sink, electric cord, and pump agitating soapsuds into endlessly changing configurations launched the lecture and set the tone. The kinetic suds, the transforming effect of electricity and pump, and the contrast between the mechanical and the natural setting were elements that reasserted themselves in much of the work that followed. “I'm interested in the nature of materials, and the nature of the gesture,” he explained.

Discussing an untitled 2009 piece in which trash bags inflated by a fan grow from a trashcan upwards into an ominous tower, only to comically collapse back into the can when the fan turns off, Steinhilber remarked on “the funny and scary feeling I get when it's in front of me — the bag is like skin or an organ . . . you want to get away from it.” This tension between humor and unease also gives power to “Front Room,” an installation created for the Baltimore Museum in which a loosely structured suspension of garage door openers and blowers drives piles of Styrofoam peanuts into disorienting blizzards. Between these whiteouts, a small army of Roomba vacuums blaze pathways to nowhere, recalling crazed street cleaners or burrowing animals.

This past summer, for the outdoor installation “Casting Angels” at New York’s Socrates Sculpture Park, Steinhilber constructed a giant sandbox in which people were invited to lie down and create “sand angels,” which were then cast in concrete and grouped on the grass. From a distance, the white forms looked like unmelted snow, or grave markers, or “like angels flying below as you walked around them,” Steinhilber says.

In “Breathing Room,” on view through February 27, 2011 as part of “Material World” at MassMOCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, Steinhilber lined a gallery with semiopaque plastic sheeting that, thanks to the magic of exhaust fans, either stretches like skin across every surface or inflates to surround the viewer. As the room “breathes,” gallery goers may find themselves holding their breath. “The crackling sound adds to the sense of claustrophobia,” he observes, adding, “It's a kinetic experience — the body is an architectural element in the space.”

Dan Steinhilber’s one-man exhibition opened October 30 at G Fine Art, Washington, D.C.