Summer Highlights #1: Many Creatures, but No Elephants

by Juliet Helmke

June 29, 2018

Haim Steinbach. Creature (2011); installation view, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, NY. Courtesy of the gallery.

Degree Critical, the online publication of the Art Writing MFA program at the School of Visual Arts has been a mainstay of the department since shortly after its inception. As the Art Writing program advances into its second decade, we’re also taking the opportunity to freshen Degree Critical by re-launching it as its own standalone website, so that its relevance becomes more profound than ever. Look for more information, and an official re-launch date to come later this season. 

To celebrate this anticipated and exciting new phase of Degree Critical, we are looking back on some of the treasure contained in its vaults. Every Friday throughout the summer, we’ll be re-posting earlier pieces of writing that capture the spirit and essence of the publication. Our first highlight, “Many Creatures, but No Elephants” by Juliet Helmke (Class of 2012), was written in the fall of 2011, and considers a solo exhibition of work by Haim Steinbach at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York. I selected Helmke’s piece for being a compact review that nevertheless provides the reader with smart critical insight—a skill that exemplifies the essence of the Art Writing department at SVA, and which we are proud to feature widely on these digital pages.

—Jessica Holmes, Editor-in-Chief

“You don’t see it, do you?” asks white, serif typeface on a large black expanse of wall at Haim Steinbach’s “Creature” at Tanya Bonakdar. What are we meant to see? A face on the flanking wall emerging from wallpaper of patchy black squiggles? Something in the bare, unpainted drywall, hanging on it a lone particleboard square from 1976? It’s raw and unfinished and you wonder if maybe you’ve stumbled upon the gallery mid-install. Or are you meant to see the relevance of all this to the webbed, mutant turtle figure standing on a horizontal column, one large, perfectly finished oblong that cuts of the rest of the room from access? Or is “it” the significance of the dog treat toy in almost every collection of objects on the first floor, arrangements that are titled Roots, The Bather, and Robot Poetry (all from 2011)?

Apart from the particleboard—one of Steinbach’s earliest readymades—all works are from the 2000s. But it was during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s that Steinbach began experimenting with his now characteristic arrangements of everyday items, in a series of displays at New York alternative spaces such as Fashion Moda and Artists Space. Steinbach impinged upon the white cube space, using conventional exhibition modes like plinths, shelves, and vitrines to both venerate the objects he placed in and on them, as well as well as cast the public eye back onto modes of cultural production.

Perhaps what is more peculiar at Bonakdar is when you do start to see “it.” The dog toy, that is, and why it relates to its neighboring figures, which include a weathered statue of a voluptuous, naked female, a black plastic connection pipe, Darth Vader, a Maurice Sendak figure inspired by the 2009 film Where the Wild Things Are.

Haim Steinbach. Creature (2011); installation view, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, NY. Courtesy of the gallery.

In one gallery space, “it” has something to do with animals and dancers. An image in the press material of the work And to think it all started with a mouse (2004)—which is exactly this phrase in italic letters on a white wall—crops the picture as if to include the air conditioner vents as part of the artwork. After already viewing the arrangement of exposed walls, it wouldn’t be entirely impossible for the air ducts to be artwork rather than architecture. Where Degas bronzes stand atop paint-chipped wooden stools, a bold demand for “No Elephants” is printed across the wall. As if hearing the taunt that surely every viewer is blind to the meaning contained in “Creature,” you try desperately to find what should be seen in this assemblage of texts and boxed-in objects. A comment on the social construct of femininity perhaps?

And that’s when you start to get it. At almost the end of the exhibition, trying to work out what the creature is, the realization hits you that the objects themselves are not the grand work of art, sitting as they do so inert and ordinary beside equally banal figures. Rather, it’s what happens when the objects face an audience, and minds start ticking, firing off a barrage of questions and associations, where the connections between objects become a lot bigger than the things themselves.

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