Kentucky artist turns trash into art at Perlow-Stevens Gallery

Monday, September 22, 2008 | 10:30 p.m. CDT; updated 8:42 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, September 23, 2008

This story has been changed to correct the attribution of two quotes.

COLUMBIA — Walk into the Perlow-Stevens Gallery on East Broadway, and among the landscape paintings and still lifes of apples is a collection of trash.

Or so it would appear. “TRASH?" reads a sign on the wall. "This piece is hand-carved, hand-painted WOOD.”


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The work of Tom Pfannerstill, showing until Sunday at the gallery, 812 E. Broadway, is misleading, playful and serious. The signs point to the truth behind the exhibit: Pfannerstill's work is actually art disguised as trash.

The artist meticulously crafts and paints wood and plaster until you can’t tell it from the mashed Starbucks cups and abandoned Mentos boxes you might see on any street.

Chris Stevens and Jennifer Perlow, the husband-and-wife team who own the gallery, said the signs were added after they received complaints about a crushed gas can in the front window. Disgruntled citizens said no one in Columbia would appreciate trash disguised as art.

Perlow and Stevens played on the misconception during a recent Artrageous Friday, when they put a piece of real trash on the wall alongside the sculptures and asked visitors to guess which was which. Many guessed wrong.

Watching the truth dawn on people is one of the things Pfannerstill loves most about showing his “From the Street” pieces.

“I like seeing that recognition in people’s eyes,” he said. “I do see humor in it in a way, bringing pieces of trash inside a beautiful, clean, sparkling gallery.”

But Pfannerstill isn’t just out to mess with people. He parodies objects that make people feel apathy at best (or disgust at worse) for serious reasons. Every piece was modeled on a bit of trash he actually found.

He hasn’t been able to bring himself to remove any from his Louisville, Ky., home, even though he started putting the collection together  in 1991. It creates a sort of personal diary; written on the back of each piece is where he was and what he was doing when he found the original.

Pfannerstill believes the works to be “metaphors for life.” A Starbucks cup, he explained, starts out exactly the same as millions of other cups, but is then used by a unique person. The bite marks, creases and smudges make it unique, as well.

“They change according to what they confront, what they come up against” and “become individualized,” much as people do, Pfannerstill said.

The meticulous nature of his work – copying every line, every speck of dirt and painstakingly imitating the texture of each object – also forces him to slow down. His viewers must slow down too, since his tricky pieces require close inspection.

“I step out of that rushing flow and take one little object and get everything out of it that I possibly can,” said Pfannerstill.

Joel Sager, assistant curator at Perlow-Stevens, has a more conceptual interpretation. 

“The work speaks about pollution and over-consumption,” Sager said.

Sager jokingly calls Pfannerstill’s sculptures “post-pop art,” explaining that they have a strong connection with the work Andy Warhol started in the 1960’s. Warhol’s iconic screen prints and sculptures, including the famed Campbell’s tomato soup cans, were his statement about a country that had become obsessed with consumption. Unlike Pfannerstill, Warhol depicted items in a pristine, unused state.

At a time when our consumption habits have so threatened the environment, Sager said, portraying the objects as trash is more relevant.

“His work is like the Campbell's soup cans, but 100 years old, after they’ve been left out in the street and run over,” Sager added.

Pfannerstill echoed this idea: “This is like the end of pop art.” Sager, both an artist and a curator, feels that “From the Street” has environmental, historical and personal implications.

“That’s what makes any kind of artwork successful, if it can communicate across cultural boundaries,” Sager said.

The less romantic gauge of successful art is whether or not it sells, something Perlow said she was worried about when they decided to showcase Pfannerstill.

“It’s hard for people to imagine putting it in their homes,” she said. “We knew people would respond to it, but I didn’t know how sales would be.”

Her worries proved relatively unfounded. Out of the roughly 40 pieces that they have been showing over the last two months, 13 have sold. Prices for the sculptures range from around $500 to around $5,000.

“We’ve had more traffic from his work than any other single artist,” Perlow said. “I’m dreading taking it down.”

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