Trash Talk: the Humble Object as High Art
Cumberland Gallery Through November 26
by Sara Lee Burd
“I want to express my connection with this object, not fool the viewer’s eye. If there is blue, I use blue. If the package is crumpled, I paint the crumple.”
It’s one thing to see Tom Pfannerstill’s art in photographs and another thing entirely to hold it in your hand. That’s why Cumberland Gallery owner Carol Stein always posts a “PLEASE TOUCH” sign next to his installations. She finds that visitors stop and wonder when they see that declarative statement in a gallery, especially next to what appears to be dirty, smashed, and splattered rubbish. Once in hand, the masterfully made basswood sculptures defy expectations to humorous, confounding ends. Stein explains, “With all the focus on the serious things in conceptual and contemporary art, sometimes it’s fun to be incredulous and just laugh.” The subject of Pfannerstill’s art is trash, but his process of gathering, carving, painting, and documenting is as significant as the finished work of art.
“I stumbled on a piece of trash and it contained all of the things I was thinking,” Pfannerstill recalls of his initial relationship with the subject. Pfannerstill developed his artistic practice in school during the height of pop art and abstract expressionism and found himself in search of objects that would grab the viewer immediately and express the passage of time without relying on symbolism. He notes, “The art of Jasper Johns hit me in the gut. I had a visceral reaction that I really couldn’t explain in an intellectual way.” Pfannerstill continues to use that aesthetic sensibility when searching for subjects for his art.
Not all trash is the same to Pfannerstill, though. He takes great care selecting the rejectamenta he brings into the studio noting, “It has to strike me. I have to have an affinity with it.” That which was once discarded becomes a live model for the artist. He works for weeks noticing and reproducing the piece of garbage in exacting detail. Everything is hand painted without transfers, and although made to look real, the works are not trompe l’oeil. “I want to express my connection with this object, not fool the viewer’s eye. If there is blue, I use blue. If the package is crumpled, I paint the crumple.” While that mindset seems simple, the art is filled with meaning.
The story Pfannerstill tells with his art is personal. “It’s me looking at the world in an unguarded way. A lot of people make art based on the news or part of another conversation. I am making art from a one-on-one experience I’m having with an object.” He emphasizes that he’s making “a diary of a sort.” By inscribing his sculptures with the location where he found the original refuse, he marks the beginning of his relationship with the object. As Pfannerstill expresses, “The sculptures mimic my paths through the world.”
His sculptures lend themselves to social-political interpretations about waste and consumption, and Pfannerstill acknowledges that his art lends itself to other significances outside of his experience. The sculptures he has made over years document changes in availability and marketing of popular culture. Stein notes that gallery visitors engage with Pfannerstill’s work on many levels—sometimes specific images, the packaging, the memories associated with the products, and then their astonishment in the skill involved in making these works of art appear real.
While just hanging the actual trash he collects could communicate similar ideas, he uses traditional techniques of art to draw attention. As Stein explains, “He’s fascinated with the concept of trash. The idea that people could throw out things that then could be translated into art.” The question of whether the object is real or created commands people to stop, take notice, and look closely. Pfannerstill’s work addresses the paradox his art creates in contemporary life. “People spend their lives not looking at things, simultaneously driving, texting, passing by advertisements.” The opportunity to pause and escape the reality of everyday chaos is something his art requires. Pfannerstill finds this aspect of his artwork satisfying, since as he says, “Stopping and looking at something carefully is almost a lost art.”
It’s not often that you’d think that a pair of ragged work gloves would hang perfectly next to a painting in a living room, but Pfannerstill’s art rises to that challenge. It is finely crafted and conceptually strong. That his master work is based on trash, Pfannerstill says, “I suppose that if you find beauty in humble things you can find beauty in all things. That’s what I want.”
Pfannerstill’s Trash Talk is on view at Cumberland Gallery through November 26. For more information, visit www.cumberlandgallery.com.