Madonnas, Oil Rigs, and Toothbrush Holders: The Sculpture of Thomas Flynn II

Thomas Flynn II,  This is My Mother of Mercy , hammer encased in wax, 9.5 x 8 x 11.5 inches

Thomas Flynn II, This is My Mother of Mercy, hammer encased in wax, 9.5 x 8 x 11.5 inches

By Scott Gleeson

For artist Thomas Flynn II, objects possess their own agency independent of the categories, meanings, and functions assigned by their creators or the social contexts they inhabit. The necessary link between form and function is arbitrary, in Flynn's view, thus freeing the spectator and object to imagine new realities characterized by interchangeability and ambiguity. Considered within the context of object-oriented ontology, a philosophy which considers the life of objects independent of human use, Flynn may be seen to promote new ontological inquiries in the realm of kitsch and mass consumer culture. In his sculpture, the artist short circuits the relationship between form and function by rendering found objects useless. Objects typically regarded as purely functional, such as tools, are encased within wax casts of decorative objects, including vases or figurines, so that the original object remains partially visible. Flynn's work thrives upon the tension generated by the conflation of two seemingly unrelated objects, the decorative and the functional. Flynn's readymades invert Duchampian and Pop Art critiques of high art in a profound and provocative way, by positing a world in which the objective, immutable qualities of things are substituted for the subjective fantasies of the user. Peripheral Vision discusses with the artist his methods, motivations, and ongoing projects.

How old were you when you decided to become an artist? Describe your training and how it has contributed to your current practice.

I never felt a calling to the arts. Rather, my academic and professional pursuit of the discipline fell into place as a response to the circumstances of my life. When I was in high school I commuted over an hour to an all-boys Catholic school in downtown Houston from the outer northern suburbs. On the way back from school, I would leave the campus to take the metro bus to downtown Houston to wait for my next bus to take me further north. I remember walking the streets of my city, taking pictures with my flip-phone and then I would spend the next three hours on the bus editing my pictures that I took that day as it carried me and my fellow riders back towards home. The cycle would repeat for the next year or so.

This unconstrained free time allowed me to develop an eye and facility with basic photographic practice; and the limitations of the primitive Samsung editing software helped me learn to make creative choices. I actually used several of the pictures I took and edited on my phone in my portfolio application for the Savannah College of Art and Design. I changed high schools in my junior year. To further pursue photography, which was not offered as a course, I was forced to enroll in an entry level art class. By my senior year, I was taking two periods of art class a day, taking my work home where I began exploring the discipline of painting. I applied to the Savannah College of Art and Design, and graduated in May 2016 with a BFA in Painting. My formal training there was heavily influenced by several professors who further helped me find my way as I transitioned from hyper-realist figurative painting to more intuitive Chinese painting techniques and then to working in sculpture. I continue to benefit from this influence as I seek to balance my studio practice with my new life in Dallas.

Thomas Flynn II,  I Don't Want You to Catch Whatever This Is , used iPhone, USB cord, wax, 11.75 x 5.5 x 3 inches

Thomas Flynn II, I Don't Want You to Catch Whatever This Is, used iPhone, USB cord, wax, 11.75 x 5.5 x 3 inches


What are the dominant themes in your current body of work and how did your practice evolve to focus on these concerns?

My Roman Catholic upbringing has affected my worldview in a profound way. The historical course that the religion has taken and the remnants of paganism buried within dogma fascinate me. I have always found the ritual surrounding religion just as strange and endearing as I have found oilrigs and toothbrush holders. I am wigged out by the categorization of these objects and their separation from one another. I am in continual amazement that Madonna statues are not in everyone’s bathroom assisting in oral hygiene or in clusters out in East Texas, exhuming power from deep within the earth. The truth behind the form and function of these objects must be construed through societal and cultural influences. I am interested in the barrier between perceived and actual ontological presence. This “supposed actuality” is only accomplished by the separation of form and function. As often happens, when the purpose of objects are removed or perverted, it is met with amusement, puzzlement, and sometimes disgust.

The tension between these emotions interests me, as well as the tension between the spiritual nature of self and the societal roles placed upon the self. The spirituality of my work came to prominence when I was studying abroad in the south of France, just north of Marseille, after spending many nights painting and then hiking in the rural foothills of the mountains surrounding the area. Seeing the landscape with stars and city lights melding together into one endless expanse where the buildings could be above and the stars could be below, changed my life. This paradigm shift leads me to look at manmade and natural objects as equivalents. When I returned to the states, I saw a bastardization of the relationship to nature and man. Instead of stars and city lights melding together, city lights obliterated the stars - as if each star was a reminder of man’s insignificance and must be drowned out by our own light. The treatment of the environment in this way is seemingly justified by the increase of population. These are complex issues, and it seems to me that the balance of the relationship can’t be determined by science, or by morality, but instead by an emphatic attitude to our history as we approach the future. To this day, the memories of the stars and moon over that forest follow me in sightless dreams.

Describe your studio practice and working methods? How does this space contribute to your process and development of idea?

Much of my studio practice involves reading and researching diverse subjects, varying from the nature of religion and the idolization of objects to the evolution of ironic behaviors that influence commerce. I often find myself thirty windows deep in my computer browser following my interest from ancient monoliths to the development of the strip mall shopping center. In college, I found that I worked best at night from the hours of 10pm to around 4:30am, but now I love waking up early in the morning and working in the studio until late afternoon.

When I was creating the wax sculptures, I created them in my apartment in Savannah to prepare for the exhibition where they would be debuted. I would spend hours soaking the molds in my bathtub and then casting them and allowing them to dry as I went to work or to class. In a month, I had cast over one hundred sculptures but only kept around seven that I thought were successful. I think this process of editing is important in my work. When I was working on my Mylar relief paintings that now reside in the SCAD permanent collection, I built half in Savannah, and the other half in my parent’s garage in Houston. I have learned that my studio practice and methods change depending on the needs of the artwork and the confines of my daily life. I just do what is necessary to follow the idea until its manifestation is unquestionable, however long and in however many forms it takes.

How do you make your art? Please describe your materials and techniques and how they developed.

I have a horde of found objects that I am going through slowly as new associations come to mind. I think my art comes from a place rooted in experimentation and non-conformity. When painting, I often allow for the alchemical properties of the paint to display themselves and I think that carries over into all mediums. I allow the materials to behave as they will by creating a certain situation for the material to respond to. In that way, my art is as much about setting the correct circumstances as it is about execution. I believe in creating a “universe” surrounding each art piece, where there are certain rules that must be followed in creation of the object and that the rules must be followed to fruition. Sometimes it takes more time creating the “rules” that the artwork should follow than it takes to create the work itself. In the case of the Mylar works, it began as wanting to screw planks of 2x4’s onto a Mylar paneled wall, but the look and feel of the simple screws penetrating the wall made me question how they would feel if the screws came from the opposite side of the Mylar. Hence, the six panels that I created called “Inevitable Tension” which present a balance of two desires distilled into a tension of two materials. The screws penetrating the Mylar distort the reflection of the viewer allowing a palpable tension between safety and self-admiration. The piece allows for playfulness as well as self-preservation from the perception of aggression. One piece tends to come from the fruition of the one before. Ideas spawn new morphed ideas that I try to follow as fast as I can.

Thomas Flynn II, Installation view with  Inevitable Tension , Mylar, screws, and wood.

Thomas Flynn II, Installation view with Inevitable Tension, Mylar, screws, and wood.

You have won an all-expense-paid trip on the Time Machine! Where would you go and why?

I would probably go to Pre-Columbian Central America and in a dramatic religious display inform the inhabitants that when pale men clad in iron cross the salt sea in the bellies of wooden fish, to not trust them no matter what. Maybe put a death curse in there also. Just to be extra effective, I might consider covering my head in aluminum foil to protect my brainwaves from the government in my own time.

Tell us about your current body of work? 

The wax sculptures are my most current body of work and they pulled from a distinct adolescent memory involving a hammer, a church parking lot, and a Disney World Buddha statue. Originally, I had wanted to “fossilize” a hammer in a solid block of wax that would then be lit from beneath to reveal its shadowy form within. I knew I had decided that the hammer was both a catalyst to this memory, as well as relevant to the historical narrative of tool culture, which culminated in a modern industrial society marked by increasing obsolescence in the wake of digital technology. The hammer also has associations to power and can be used both for destroying and as a building tool. In the memory itself, I couldn’t ascertain its nature and had buried the hammer, so to speak, for many years.

As I was resuscitating it for the project, I realized it needed to be neutralized in order for me to look at it with any clarity. By happenstance, I found a storage unit filled floor to ceiling with industrially produced plaster molds of commercial objects. The vase mold that I ended up using in “This Is My Mother of Mercy” was a perfect complement to the hammer because of the domestic and timeless nature of the object. Normally, the vase would be cast in clay and painted to look like porcelain, so to cast it in wax interrupted the object’s domestication, fossilizing the idea of the vase itself without the function. The wax also recalls the intermediate stage of the lost-wax bronze casting process, an ancient sculpture technique whereby the functionless wax form serves only as a place holder for a void in the mold eventually filled by molten metal. Once combined, new associations form until each artifact achieves ambiguity and distance from its original function and meanings. The rest of the sculptures followed suit, with the successful ones pulling connotations together from each object.

What is next for you in your art practice?

Currently, I am researching for my next big project, which I can’t say too much about but it involves perceived historical narratives and an in depth look on the dichotomy of masculine and feminine tendencies as they relate to the individual.