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 commercializationand 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.