It seemed like a good idea back in the 1980s: borrow a bunch of money, go to art school, pretend you’re preparing for a real job. Ben Pranger did it. Now, four years out of graduate school, with his art attracting plenty of attention, he’s living from hand to mouth, juggling a couple of part-time jobs for rent money, wondering how he’ll ever get out from under. “I’ve got all this debt from college,” he says. “I’ll never break even.”

This is not the life Pranger anticipated when he graduated from Oberlin (in English), decided to take up painting, and came to the School of the Art Institute for an MFA. Back then, he says, no one seemed concerned about the imbalance between the number of black-clad hopefuls flocking to art school and the real-world demand for serious artists. Except for one teacher who joked that “all you people are going to be out drywalling,” no one at the Art Institute even talked about it.

By his last year of school Pranger was ready to give up painting, with its historical baggage and obsession with technique, for a more “conceptual” medium. He hit on sculpture made of found objects, sometimes set in motion. Some of these can be seen in his current show at Perimeter Gallery. There are coffee cups that continually overflow, a suitcase that runs in circles on the gallery floor, a vented concrete pillow that breathes steam. The largest piece, Breaking Even, is a treadmill of diminishing returns: tin cans haul pennies up a chain pulley, dump them into a plastic pipe, and start over, losing a few along the way.

When critics pronounced this work lighthearted, Pranger was taken aback. “One critic was really brutal and called it ‘art lite,'” he says. “I didn’t mean it to be light. I think of it as absurd. This work comes from my life after art school. It’s about my condition now, just trying to make ends meet. It’s about that huge gap between what we have and what we want.” His own favorite in the show is a ladder made of shoelaces. Put your foot on it, it’s sure to collapse.

“Kinetic Sculpture and Installations,” Pranger’s show at Perimeter Gallery, 750 N. Orleans, continues through August 31. Hours are 10:30 to 5:30, Tuesday through Friday. Call 266-9473.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Loren Santow.