Polly Becker's work springs from the emotional and semantic charge of the found object, old photography and its precise composition. Her assemblages have illustrated articles in Rolling Stone, Harpers, The New York Times and others.
Akin to a living organism, the pieces reveal forces of nature like the passage of time or gravity, effects that are both unpredictable and inevitable at the same time. The finite nature of the elements that make up her illustrations and their layout, meticulously defying gravity, fill the compositions’ narrative with believability and realism. The assemblages are conceived out of a deep respect for the original context of each piece comprising these three-dimensional illustrations. Collected and gathered one by one as if for the artist’s personal treasure, the photographs and objects each have their own story. Bringing them together produces a new and deliberate discourse.
"Removed from the literal connection that originates most editorial illustration, the designer sees her work not as mere visual accompaniment, but rather as a communicative element in and of itself. During the conceptual and pre-production phase, she draws sketches with countless annotations about the “ingredients” and their arrangement. Borne from the ingenuousness of the toy world, these sculptural illustrations provide a reflection and social reactant to reality and American stereotypes. The nostalgia of early photography and the evocation of the past of the pieces in these sculptural collages paradoxically serve as an atemporal illustration of our day and age."
"Polly Becker’s quirky collages and whimsical characters are pure delight. The desire of this American designer to be unconventional and to delight her audience is most certainly achieved, and with great charm."
From French Magazine Grand Bag
A feature in French design magazine Grand Bag. Here is the interview
1) Could you introduce yourself in a few lines?
I make images (mostly) for magazines and newspapers: editorial illustrations. The work, when printed, is meant to convey some idea of, and draw attention to, a story's content, the hope being to lure people into reading the article. My work isn't typical for my field. Sometimes I feel embarrassed about being weird (even in daily life!), but it is also true that not fitting in has helped me in my job. Even if it puts people off, work that is odd can sometimes be easier to remember.
2) When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
Actually, a long time ago, I decided not to be an artist. I became convinced at a young age that to define oneself as an artist was to risk self-importance, that it was better to just try to be a good craftsman and hope art might somehow sneak in through the back door. I still carry some negative prejudices about that word and worry that thinking of oneself as an artist might be an excuse for self-indulgence. I really, really like the structure and reality-testing that the commercial aspects of my work provide. I lovethat the images need to contain meaning that isn't just personal. When somebodyintroduces me as an artist to someone else, say, at a party, I'll correct them and say "commercial artist." That said, it's amazing to me that I struggled to support myself at first, and only when the work became more "artistic,"--that is, more personal - did it begin to do better in the marketplace. I was very lucky. It was quite a pleasant surprise that relaxing a little, and working more from feeling and intuition, turned out to be better on a professional level.
3) Do you have any thought leader,works,readings,musics...that did influence you,or did
determine,your work from the beginning?
I forget what artist said it is important to look at a lot of other work, because if you don't you will find yourself being influenced by work you've never seen --that is, you'll be influenced by an important artist's imitators, potentially, while being to naive to have studied the original.
Growing up in San Francisco in the late 60's and early 70's, I was exposed to a lot of sculptural work I now realize was created in the wake of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. I remember these "junk" sculptures, larger-than-life figures of people made from driftwood, metal, old tires, etc, at the waters edge in the East Bay--also many fabulous psychedelic and whimsical projects: cars, and other forms, encrusted with a solid "skin" of plastic flowers, beads, tiny toy figures, dice, shells, everything that could be glued on....It was a childlike culture in some ways, even for the adults, creative and playful. There was lots of interest in crafts and textiles, pattern and texture, materials heterogeneously drawn from a number of different sources. This counterculture was all I knew when I was very little, so controversial messages such as be transgressive, and defy authority, I absorbed ( how ironic!) obediently.
In imagination I tend to make "friends" of the artists who give me the most pleasure, as part of my efforts to understand them, and maybe alsobecause I feel grateful for th e pleasure they give me. My most cherished role models feel pretty personal to reveal, maybe because it sounds delusional to say that I "identify" with someone like Iris Murdoch or Saul Steinberg! Anyway, I keep an ongoing mental list of artistic heroes who inspire me-- an archive or pantheon I am continually updating. I seem to have been conducting an ongoing investigation of how to be good, to do more with attitudes, maybe principles, about how to work "well," that with the study of specific techniques.
Ifind myselftrying to learn from and be influenced by, all kinds of artists. Ifind people and things to try to "live up to," so that I will care more, somehow. As a way of trying to raise the stakes. This seems to be better for me than emulating any particular visual artist's technique--though I have done that, too (Howard Pyle's pen and ink drawings, for example, or the collages of Hannah Hoch, who is so strong and brash about disjunctions in her figures). Mostly I seem to obsess about actors, directors comedians,playwrights, poets, musicians, and also people I know personally. Probably it is because when one is working in a collage idiom, the challenge is to make something that doesn't look like something you have already seen. For example, I don't usually even try to put things in boxes, because Joseph Cornell already has plenty of bad imitators.
Innovation is the name of the game with assemblage, which has a tendency to be pretty boring and all look the same, even to me, even when I look through books of the Dada and Surrealist era work I love, but especially, seeing horrible housewife decoupage, cheaply sentimental nostalgic mishmashes of miscellaneous ephemera. Ugh. . I generally find I kind of hate assemblage and collage work which looks like what I do--not only because I am hypercritical, but because I find it depressing, quite discouraging, to identify with, yet hard not too. Working in a collage medium is almost like being a method actor: unless you are doing what you really feel, being "truthful", and in the moment, allowing your own personality to emerge, there is a risk of making work which looks like looks like it's already been done. I'm not saying this is easy to do or that I'm good at it--being original-- just that I'm aware that it's important to try, if you want to engage someone's interest.
4) Do you have a personal definition of illustration?
I do! I notice that the word includes the root of the word for "light" --Luster being like "illumination" (as in an illuminated manuscript)-- and I love that: the idea that an illustrator might be trying to e-lucid -ate, shed light, be lucid.
5) Are you working with a gallery or a publisher?
No, in my area (print media, editorial) that is not necessary, and anyway I prefer to communicate with my clients directly. It tends to work best, and also, it can be lonely working all day by myself. The people who commission work from me sometimes become friends, a form of social interaction I value and wouldn't want a representative to take over.
6) Your work is dedicated to illustration,and brings into play characters made of
heterogeneous elements,daily life objects...Are they for you a questioning about our
emotional relation with objects and through daily life?
Objects, what they can say, without words, what we project onto them-- and also what they are in themselves--the history they carry and can subconsciously communicate --are of great interest to me, for sure. Ido sometimes engage, through my work, in emotional relationships with them, but I would not say that this is something I am questioning. It is interesting that objects can be both stand-ins for an idea, symbolic, and also so intrinsically and indissolubly physically themselves, not substitutable for anything else in any way.
7) Your scenes always have a humoristical aspect.Is derision a central element of your
Derision and parody and mockery are a kind of commentary; they come with apoint of view, and can be expressions of personality.
Mood-related things such as sorrow, or humor, or anger, emerge unexpectedly sometimes, when one is working from intuition. I believe the tone ofwork ought to be an authentic expression of one's actual inner life/world view. It is wrong to force things, to try to seem more dark, or more spontaneous, or more sweet, then you genuinely are.
Ancient physiology/psychology, gave us the the "four humors"—encompassing basically the range of human affect—and today, our word humor is still in some senses just synonymous with mood. (On a tangential note, I find it interesting to consider the relationship between humor and horror. Both are so powerful, and theydo seem to have things in common: for one thing, both are dependent for the full exercise of their powers on the element of surprise, sudden reversals or revelations, perceptual shifts. Also they have a way of existing apart from anything words can effectively describe).
I don't consciously set out to make work funny, and often I am surprised when people see humor in it. It makes me really glad when this happens. In life, and in art, I love it when things are funny.
8) What's your creating process?
When I can , I try to start with an idea--a concept--because this works best, better than proceeding from how something might look. Then I just rummage though all my collected stuff trying to find the things that seem to tell the story or get the idea across when I put them next to each other. Once I have my parts--the less, the better, I find (anything unneeded tends to detract from the reading and be very distracting, more disruptive than you'd think) I spend ages and ages making teeny tiny adjustments to the exact arrangement and fine-tuning the composition. Sometimes I feel this stage goes on too long. Sometimes I think it is important to do it. I let the thing fall apart again and again, as a kind of discipline to teach myself how best to arrange it back together. it. It's like a way tomemorize it. This is how I "refine" an assemblage. I think this making and breaking again and again is maybe a way of understanding what the object should be, what I am trying to do, what the "scheme" of it is.
9) What's your favorite materials?
I like real things. I like to be as direct as possible, and use things which actually are what I am trying to talk about. I collect things that appeal to me for one reason or another, and my favorite things to use in assemblages are things I like for themselves, anyway--not just because of what they "mean" in a picture, but what they actually are.
10) Which place does ancient image take in your work?
The ephemeral nature of the ancient image makes it poignant, the same way an effect ofsunlight some transient moment is poignant. Old things can be morbid, or just sorrowful, drawing attention to impermanence even if the object itself has managed to enure as a representative fragment of life gone by. I am alive to this perception, and my work relies on it from time to time. That said, there is this knee-jerk thing about the "old fashioned" in illustration, in general, which I object to strongly. It is as if something is automatically good, more palatable, seen through the yellowed filter of an idealizing backward look, the romance of decay andtexture. A gloss of "distress" is one way that people try to make work which is anything but, seem authentic, or (a despised word) "edgy". The fake authentic is some kind of special insult to those of us who care about the real.
M Magazine (Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates)
Little Thing Magazine (China)
Q: How did you start creating assemblages?
A: I started creating the assemblages because I was frustrated with drawings that took a long time to render. I would get bored doing that work even though there is a certain pleasure in drawing. My techniques were time-consuming and somewhat tedious. So I found this new way of working that allowed greater emotionality and I was glad. It’s more spontaneous.
Q: What sort of equipment do you use in the creating process. Could you introduce something of your creating process?
A: I use whatever I have around and that means an odd, somewhat accidental collection of tools. I bought a box of old shoemaking supplies years ago, and also some antique dentist tools, so I have a lot awls. I have a drill which I love, a very beautiful grinding wheel, and lots and lots of little tiny bits of flotsam and jetsam. I never know when I am going to need and what I am going to use. So in terms of technique there is a lot of randomness, the craft aspect is fairly haphazard.
Q: You apply multiple materials. Many objects look like recycled materials. Where do you find these objects for your assemblages?
A: I find the objects for my assemblages in my apartment mostly. It’s rare that I have a need for something that I don’t already have. When I do need something particular, I can go to ebay or into a flea-market or an antique store with a mission. Sometimes I find what I am looking for and sometimes I can’t. Generally I like to work with what I have on hand, because I enjoy the surprise of learning that I do have what I need right here. The discipline and rigor of “making-do with what you have” is a positive artistic value. So I guess that speaks a little bit to the question of recycling. I do love the idea of re-purposing an object – of taking something from one context and putting it into another — of using it completely differently than how the original thing was supposed to be used. I like thriftiness in general. I think working with an economy of means makes work better(less being more, and necessity being mother of invention). Many of the things I’ve used are recycled, things history has tossed into my possession, some things I fell in love with at and bought, and some things that I found on the street. I love it when I find something that nobody else realizes is beautiful but me. I love texture, and texture comes with age. Recycling is a positive operation for that reason, as well as because you have a tendency to have get an object that has acquired a bit of history to it. And I believe that you can sense the presence of history, even if you can’t know exactly what that history was. The fact that there was a history, the fact that time elapsed and affected this thing, whatever it is, is in itself of interest.
Q: After taking the photos, will you keep the assemblage? Will you reuse the objects in another piece?
A: I find this issue confusing. The fact is I do cannibalize my finished pieces. I like only a very small percentage of what I make. I think my work as being very uneven. There is a kind of survival of the fittest rule around here where only pieces that I consistently feel pretty confident about survive the ravages of my scavenging. I am always in a hurry and basically I do what’s expedient. Because I turn editorial assignments around very quickly, I often just assemble things for the purpose of photographing them and allow them later to fall apart. Ittakeslonger to put something together well enough that it stays. So, mostly my pieces are in a state of falling apart. Unless I really made an effort to make them solid. Because I work in a very tentative and hesitant way, I am often reluctant to take those last steps in to finalize an assemblage. I do feel that commitment and committing to fixing an object in place is important. I would prefer it to be permanent, but there is something about the nature of illustration itself that means it’s just not recorded that way. It is recorded and finished enough to be reproduced in a magazine.
Q: Your works have a very strong personal style, but we still wonder did anyone have any influence on your development?
A: I have been influenced by people who aren’t necessarily in my field but who are kind of artistic role models for me: certain artists or writers who feel like case studies for me to ponder, whose work speaks to me. I am always trying to figure out how to be good; I like to study other people. And I read a lot, so books influence me. I am influenced by people in my life as well. I think that the individual importance of a single person is sometimes over-emphasized, when you consider how much of who we are is actually almost a patch-work of other things we’ve been exposed to, the culture we were steeped in when we were growing up, the ideas, and people, we are acquainted with– shared cultural reference points. So I’ve been influenced by all the things anybody my age living where I am living will probably be influenced by. And also by things and people I choose to love.
Q: What’s the most difficult part of your job?
A: I find many parts of my job difficult. Sometimes it feels a little lonely. I am anxious about the possibility of not being good: issues of insecurity plague my artistic process. I find it difficult to be clever and to come up with good ideas, but yet I feel that is the best way to be, so I try even though I find it difficult. I find it difficult to get the time I need to work. My craft is poor because I find it difficult to be patient. I also find marketing very difficult.
Q: I guess you’re a collector, what do you like to collect and why?
A: What I like to collect are tiny, little things that I think are beautiful that other people might not necessarily see the beauty in. I collect things that remind me of things that are important to me. Things that are the most important, that mean the most, are things one really can’t touch or hold or keep. An object, when I feel that it’s something to treasure, is maybe is a stand-in for all those other things that one might desire and wish for and dream about and imagine, but can’t possess.