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Objects and Ambiguities: A Studio Visit with Becket Flannery

A large green eye in a plastic face looks up at us from the floor as we go by. The door to the studio is shaped like a wave.
Miranda: eye on the floor

Photo: Becket Flannery

Miranda: Becket

Photo: Becket Flannery

We are here for an informal studio visit, to see the art Becket has been making on the days he is not arranging travel and organizing correspondence for ICA’s curatorial department, where he works part-time as an administrative assistant. In the office, he wears three-piece suits and ties, often with pocket square, so it’s strange at first to see him here in jeans and flannel shirt. Still, it’s clear that his gracious good humor, his excavating intelligence, and his self-possessed calm serve him in the studio as they do in the office. Becket will be leaving Philadelphia at the end of the summer to attend an MFA program in painting at the Roski School of Fine Arts at USC. His sturdy, polished shoes will be difficult to fill.

Passing through the wave-shaped doorway, Jennifer crosses the room to a table where Becket has laid out some of his artwork for us to see.
Miranda: table_jm cropped

Miranda: table_jm cropped

One piece began life as a VHS tape case. One is a big book of empty pages with drops of faux-marbled paint on the cover. A third is made of pieces of sky blue foam about the shape and size of sticks of butter, nestled in a white cardboard shell on top of a slab made from more blue foam.
Miranda: blue piece

Photo: Becket Flannery

“You desperately want to touch it,” Jennifer says, leaning close.

“They’re carved,” Becket says. “They have this geometry, but they’re very, very handmade. I use this blue color a lot, but I try not to use it as a color. I use it as a substance.”

There are a lot of things to see in this small studio space—un-air conditioned in the summer, unheated in the winter—in a big, ramshackle building full of artist studios. On our way in, we passed rows of doors all shut with padlocks, the corridor walls flaking and strangely marked, and a derelict brush factory in a big open space. It’s a Monday afternoon, quiet. Becket asked the band upstairs if they could please not rehearse today.

In addition to the pieces on the table, there are works hung on the wall, still others standing or lying on the floor. “This is the brightest spot,” he says, pointing, “so whatever I’m working on at the moment is here.” He shows us the shadowy place further along where easy access is blocked by the end of the large table. That’s where he hangs his finished pieces when he wants them around for reference. Jennifer admires a shiny, deep red object, shaped not unlike a lightning bolt, on the floor.
Miranda: red piece

Photo: Becket Flannery

“I feel like I could dive into it,” she says.

“I chose this color because the surface was hard to find,” Becket explains. “The great thing about some of those enamel surfaces is that they’re hard to see.” The talk turns to materials: enamel, foam, paper, found objects. “Material is incredibly seductive,” Becket says. “I don’t want to be an artist who’s naively interested in materials.”

“Why not?” I ask. I’m wondering whether the seductiveness of materials for an artist is like that of words for a writer. Ideas and stories tend to slip away when we swoon over language instead of organizing it in the service of something larger. Becket tells me that materials come with cultural meanings—symbologies—that it’s important to get away from those. “A lot of making things,” he says, “is the ambiguity between the material of an object and its appearance.”
Miranda: jen and becket_jm2

Becket and Jennifer in the studio.

Ambiguity is a good word for Becket’s work, which resists easy categorization. Sometimes, looking around the room, I’m not sure what’s a painting and what’s a sculpture. I have to ask. If Becket minds answering, he gives no sign of it. He is a forthcoming, articulate, warm host, calmly introducing his guests around the room, helping us get to know the family of objects inhabiting the space. He says, “I think what’s great is that objects stick around. They resist being digested.” He explains that there is a point, when you are working on an object, when the piece seems to recognize its own existence: “You feel as though you’re being looked at when you’re looking at it. That’s how I answer the question about how I know when a piece is done.”

We go back for more time with the sky blue foam object. Jennifer is interested in the white cardboard bit. “It’s like a little shell or a little clam,” she says. Becket explains that the thing began life as a shoe insert, the kind you take out at the store before you put your foot in.

“It’s a stand-in for the organic,” Jennifer says.

“It puts it in an ambiguous place—not really technological, not really nature,” Becket says. Then he adds, “If you’re not paying attention to what’s interesting in the object, it doesn’t succeed.” A little later he says, “Things are not beautiful because there are rules about beauty; they’re beautiful because they’re attractive of desire.”
Miranda: tape case

vi deo t ape.” Photo: Becket Flannery

I think that’s exactly what these objects do: draw the eye to them, call to the hand. As Jennifer said earlier, you want to touch them—test their weight, feel their sheen, run your skin along their curves and angles.

When it’s time for us to go, Becket picks up the deep red floor sculpture and leans it prosaically against the wall, tidying up, making room for the other artists who share the space. “It kind of ruins the magic,” he says.

But it doesn’t, not really. The magic just takes a step back, moving into the shadows where it flickers patiently, preparing for the mythic journey west.

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