Tuesday, January 11, 2011

One Person's Trash...

In his "From the Street" series, currently on display in PS:Gallery's new exhibit, Looking Back, Moving Forward, Tom Pfannerstill gives new meaning to the art of trash. Adhered to the wall are recognizable products such as a Coca-Cola cup and Chinese take-out box, surely byproducts of a person's lunch; compressed and smudged, these containers have been discarded and fulfilled their purpose. But no! They are in fact handcrafted representations, made from wood that has been carved and painted by the artist. (I promise.)

Pfannerstill's works have myriad implications, one being their evocation of Pop Art. A favorite movement of mine, Pop Art was notorious for celebrating commercialization
and the everyday object, often with amusing and ironic results. Claes Oldenburg's Soft Fur Good Humors (yum) is a case in point. In a manner reminiscent of Oldenburg's, Pfannerstill has handcrafted replicas of commercial products. The sculptures are so realistic it is easy to take Pfannerstill's artistry for granted, a careful process that contrasts with the mechanized production of such objects in reality. Pfannerstill's used and abused consumer products have met their expiration date and entered Life, Part 2: Elevation to Art Object, an optimistic narrative for the unglamorous Chinese take-out box. Whether his works celebrate or decry commercialization (if either) is open to interpretation; regardless, they contribute to the Pop Art dialogue on mechanization, consumerism, and the boundaries of art.

Pfannerstill's series also addresses the self-revealing value of trash. As a former Master's student in archaeology, I know well that trash is an archaeologist's best friend. Discarded materials, whether in the form of ceramics, animal bones, or even pornographic material that your great-grandmother confiscated from Grandpa, convey information about rituals, values and the everyday. When confronted with Pfannerstill's replicas (if I may call them that), we are provoked to consider what these artifacts say about our own culture.

The framing--both literal and figurative--of artifacts is integral to the relationships we form with them. This is especially apropos to the display of archaeological material, Pfannerstill's sculptures being a case in point. Simply adhered to the wall, the blunt presentation of commercial trash is mildly offensive, owing to the effects of decontextualization. Bypassing such trash on the street would result in little or no response from the average person because we expect to find trash on the street (unless you're in Switzerland). However, by virtue of being handcrafted, Pfannerstill's works are actually in their appropriate context; they were arguably made for the very purpose of being exhibited. With this knowledge, their presentation somehow becomes reconcilable. (The debate over the relevance of intention is worth considering, and I hope knowledgable readers will chime in here!)

Lastly, there is an unexpected socio-economic resonance to Pfannerstill's works. In environmentally-progressive countries like Denmark, trash is coveted as a source of converted energy. In Burkina Faso, farmers pay municipal waste personnel to dump unsorted waste on their crops as fertilizer. Pfannenstill's symbolic gesture of turning trash into art signifies American luxury, and perhaps overconsumption.

When considered in light of the exhibit's theme, Pfannerstill's works speak to the power of re-framing and transformation. The sculptures can be a source of inspiration for this process, since the artist ascribes to them a memento mori (Latin: "reminder of death") function due to their used and discarded nature. Identities can shift and so can perspectives, as long as you seize the opportunity to step out of the frame.

"Looking Back, Moving Forward" will be on exhibit through February 7.


  1. Great article, Olivia! I really like your Oldenberg comparison, but I think perhaps these works might also be productively compared to Jasper John's meticulously replicated, painted bronze, Ballantine Ale cans or Savarin Coffee can, linked to below.



    I think that in both Johns and perhaps in Pfannerstill, one can find a playful kind of wit and nose-thumbing at the expense of the institution of art patronage. One might recall the often cited anecdote about the beer cans' origin in which Willem de Kooning, abstract expressionist, lamented on the marketability of Postmodern art: “That son of a bitch Castelli, You could give him two beer cans and he could sell them.” Purportedly, Johns heard this provocation and embraced it head on. Pfannerstill's work, too, pushes the boundaries of what art can be and raises questions about the art market's unquestioned authority when it comes to controlling the tastes of elite buyers.

    I also really enjoyed your characterization of these objects as a kind of memento mori. When viewed in this light, these sculptures speak of death, memorialization, and even resurrection.

    Really enjoyable post. Thanks!


  2. Way to go Olivia!

    I was also reminded of Idele Weber's painting "Heineken" at the Nelson-Atkins


    ... and for the archeologist in you, there was recently an exhibit at the Kemper Museum at Wash U which featured the Brazilian conceptual artist Rivane Neuenschwander. The exhibit included a piece called "Involutary Sculptures" where the artist literay went around to different bars, collecting what most would call trash (straws bent into various shapes and curled bits of paper, etc, which were made by the bar patrons)


  3. I am going to disagree that this is "art". Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Renoir are artists. This trash is just a reminder of the over consumption and waste that plagues society.

  4. Olivia, I am no expert in contemporary art, but an amateur, so I find the content of your blog very interesting. After photography Michelangelo's art cannot make sense anymore. Making sense is what an artist should achieve before all, and trash is a crucial metaphor today, not to mention its actual importance as a central global issue in itself. Yet, these works are no trash, but a handcrafted, *art*ificial representation of it.
    On a side note, I love the style that you use, Olivia. And that Latin sentence! Kudos for all! (A Greek encouragement was required...)

  5. To artisnottrash:

    I got a chance to see the exhibit and at first glance I would have agreed with you. The pieces looked exactly like you would expect them to look if you just put up an old, crumpled cup of Coke or Chinese take-out box on a wall. The price of the pieces further exacerbated this; I was a little offended that the artist wanted me to pay $900 for what amounted to glorified crap.

    However, when I learned that Pfannerstill had hand-crafted this "trash" out of wood, it completely inverted my take on the exhibit. Not only is Pfannerstill an excellent craftsmen, but I think that his work underscores that the significance of art often lies not just in the final product (and its reflection of society), but also very much in how the product was created.


  6. Thanks for the insightful comments! For those interested in further exploring trash in our culture, I recommend this interview with Robin Nagle, an anthropologist-in-residence at New York City's Department of Sanitation: http://www.believermag.com/issues/201009/?read=interview_nagle. She discusses garbage, consumerism, and our culture's relationship to waste. It should also highlight the gravity of Pfannerstill's works.