How an Artist Turns Trash into Modern-Day Memento Mori

Karen Kedmey
Aug 20, 2014 6:59PM

When mixed media artist Tom Pfannerstill walks down the street, he does what most would not: picks up trash. The brightly branded detritus of our consumer culture fuels much of his work, most notably his “From the Street” series. He brings such things as disposable paper cups from mass-market coffee and food chains, empty six-pack carriers, cigarette cartons, aerosol and soda cans, and snack boxes back to his studio, then painstakingly recreates them as carved and painted wooden sculptures. His trompe l’oeil objects are so convincing, you could be forgiven for walking into a show of this work and wondering if the artist had simply pinned the contents of a dumpster onto the walls.

But there is more to his beguiling objects than meets the eye. Their affect unfolds in layers, beginning, most readily, with their impressively lifelike surface appearances. In Starbucks (2013), for example, the artist manages to convey every smudge, stain, tear, and fold of a crushed cup from this ubiquitous coffee chain, while in Guinness (2012), he creates a perfect sculpted facsimile of a flattened six-pack carrier. On the back of each object, he records where and when he found it; taken together, they form a map of his whereabouts over the course of months and years. Time, in fact, is among his central concerns. “These objects have a lifespan, so to speak…from their production through their usefulness to their ultimate disposal,” he explains. “As such, I see them as ‘memento mori,’ reminders of mortality and the corresponding corollary ‘carpe diem.’ They are subtle reminders of the temporal nature of all things.” So forget skulls and candles, and look no further than our endless stream of consumer waste, or to Pfannerstill’s sculptures of it, to appreciate the precious fleetingness of life.

Karen Kedmey