On ViewTanya Bonakdar Gallery
1991 – 1993
January 14 – February 27, 2021
With the exception of a 1983 prelude in Shelf with Nurse, Haim Steinbach’s fourth solo exhibition with Tanya Bonakdar isolates a period of production from which the artist’s signature laminate shelves and deadpan arrangements are absent, substituted with framing systems that conceal as much as they present. Diagonally bisecting the gallery’s main space is Display #28 – Rustic Wall (1991): a length of knotted clapboard wall, punctuated with board-and-batten shutters, from which a haunting, rickety melody emanates. Intersecting with gallery architecture on either side, Display #28 seals half the volume of the space, its shutters opening not to glass windows but to wooden niches, establishing an exterior with no inside. The source of the installation’s soundtrack is a small plastic rectangle equipped with a pair of disembodied, grinning red lips, perched on a windowsill and softly broadcasting a halting version of White Christmas. (Display #28 was first presented at Jay Gorney Modern Art in October of 1991. With this exhibition opening mid-January, the consistently narrow untimeliness of the song suits its awkward and phantasmagoric delivery.) The cheekily anthropomorphic toy hails from 1986, when it was released under the name “Blabbermouth” as both a radio and cassette player. Freshly obsolete upon its first exhibition, Blabbermouth now appears as an analog Alexa, outputting audio absent data, dumbly ventriloquizing glitches rather than correcting them.
Listed among Display #28’s contents is a brass candle snuffer, concealed within a pair of closed shutters. Revealed by gallery staff, the antique extinguishing cone is missing a handle to facilitate human use, granting it a ghostly, animistic potential that approaches its neighboring modern automaton. As with all objects deployed in Steinbach’s installations, the candle snuffer’s use value maintains its relevance, and its suppressant function, doubled by its concealment, compounds the desire and frustration engendered by Display #28’s opacity.
Beyond the main gallery is a quietly meditative installation of works from 1993. Three thick wooden boxes with white laminate surfaces are mounted on the walls. A large plinth constructed from MDF and pine and topped with glass occupies the middle of the gallery, with eight stacks of folded cotton towels neatly distributed on its surface. Steinbach, whose practice has long embellished and complicated premises of Minimalism, is presenting a set of ruptured specific objects, for each of these geometric constructions, upon examination, forgoes its structural unity and challenges the anti-illusory status of the primary structure. The untitled wall works, parenthetically named for Bess, Adi, and Hector/Michelle, respectively, are each equipped with discreetly fitted drawers at their bases, which open to reveal tenderly folded handkerchiefs embroidered with each work’s namesake. White, clean and rectangular, the napkins both mimic their container and supplement it. As Alex J. Taylor indicates in the exhibition’s essay, the act of opening the drawer implicates the viewer corporeally—a physical transition that then reveals a bodily and individualized analogue to its industrial and serialized vessel. Further contradicting their morphological kinship with Minimalism, Steinbach’s opaque, reductive boxes have accessible insides—literal content—whereas the boarded windows in the neighboring installation constitute neutered metaphors for illusionistic painting.
The room’s central object, Untitled (table with towels, bone, pacifier), proffers its contents in drawers on either side, at waist level and towards the floor, such that to engage with the piece incorporates the length of the body, mimicking the act of washing. The pacifier and rawhide bone within both subdue and silence, recall the chattering and extinguishing objects populating Rustic Wall, yet considered with the objects in their present installation, it is their intimate proximity to the body that is underscored.
The intimate experience of revealing Steinbach’s handkerchiefs frames them as relics and compounds their memorial aura. Acheiropoieta, literally translating to “icons made without hands,” is the designation given to such mythical artifacts as the Veil of Veronica and Shroud of Turin, cloths said to have to have come into contact with Christ’s body and miraculously retained the imprint of his likeness. A divine literalization of the associative force of objects, the term “icons made without hands” bears surprising echoes to the anti-authorial ethos of Minimalism and the readymade.
The methods of display—and concealment—employed here by Steinbach engage temporality, gradually revealing their contents and forgoing the specifics of that order to the agency of the viewer. The sequential encounters engendered in these works illuminate as well the relational operations of Steinbach’s more formally concise shelf works, which the artist has described in linguistic terms, with his frequently appearing, bulbous, black dog Kongs even behaving as punctuation. Steinbach’s objects, in their adjacencies and juxtapositions, behave like linguistic signs. Their meanings are both inherent and contingent, organized along the structural grammar of figure and ground constituted by his shelf supports. Presented in succession, each item yields new axes for comparison.