Eternal Dilemmas, Common Concerns

For an artist who seems as well-informed about new issues in sculpture as Thomas Skomski, it is a surprise to be able to note that one of the most compelling aspects to his work is its inherent quality of serenity. While the pieces themselves are actually quite somber, and while they treat the formal issue of confinement, for example, with a refreshing directness, the work is surprisingly free of certain free-floating social anxieties that have been so prevalent in contemporary American art, not to mention the compulsion many younger artists have of borrowing ideas or styles without making them their own, as a way of establishing their “identity.” Skomski is not a formalist in any sense of the word, but if we compare him to Peter Halley, another artist of his generation whose work depicts states of confinement, it becomes clear that Skomski’s interests are inherently more metaphysical than sociopolitical, and that this aspect is crucial to establishing the originality of his artistic position.

The motif which resonates through most of Skomski’s work of the past three years is that of the cage. In his own notes, the artist speaks of the qualities of transparency and containedness that have attracted him to this device, as well as to its oppositional manner of functioning (“keeping in while keeping out,” or, as elsewhere “[it] contains while it repels, protects while it defends, and is both looked at and looked through”). The obvious metaphor here is the human mind, whose most conspicuous limitation is that it cannot regard both itself and a subject outside of itself at the same time (If it could, art itself might very well become unnecessary). Hence, if something is contained by consciousness, then consciousness itself is kept peering in from the outside, as it were, unable to unite with the subject of its scrutiny (including its own nature, should that happen to be its focus of attention). Skomski’s art does not literalize this dilemma, but instead offers the viewer a multifold experience of regarding an object-one could even say a system-whose primary function is to unravel the act of being regarded.

While as visually rich as his earlier work, these recent pieces propose a more structured relationship in their use of natural materials, symmetrical design and simple construction. The four ‘Gate’ wall-reliefs which comprise the more pictorial element of the exhibition are Skomski’s most obvious acknowledgement of the Minimal antecedents to his work, since they appear to frame a neutral space which nonetheless acts to screen off its contents-wax or sand-from the viewer’s perceptual inquiry. In so doing, the object becomes a package which both offers and withholds its contents; according to the artist, the ‘captured’ aura of each piece’s inner sanctuary is also intended to convey a sense of transitoriness and passing time. Most art is, by contrast, thought of as something that is permanently here, a perceptual anchor to which we fleetingly expose ourselves to during some brief pause in the journey between birth and death.

The three works that make up the “Relucent” series bring the element of light into play as a means of suggesting the way in which the human mind apprehends its subject by breaking it down into fragments which are accumulated and then pieced back together. In each sculpture, a rectangular mass of raw material-felt, wood or steel-rest atop a cage which is the same size (together they form a cube). Inside the cage is a smaller chunk of the same material, which seems to have fallen out of the piece above through a hole which appears in both the large chunk and the top of the cage. While defining this absence as a literal ‘other,’ the fragment below is illuminated through an opening in the top, thus becoming equivalent to the self as well. The impression one is left with is that, again, of an allegory for perception, in which the object that we perceive is comprised of the same matter as our perception of it, but stands apart from it as an example, rather than as the thing itself.

The largest group of pieces on view here is the most serial as well, since each of the six ‘Mound Inversion’ series makes use of a 20” X 20” plate-each made from a different material-resting on top of a much smaller steel cage construction. In a sense, these works function as reversals of the ‘Relucent’ series, since the container below each plate is slightly larger than the hole (6” X 6”) cut out of the plate’s center, and the space within these diminished cages is nearly filled by the pulverized materials which Skomski has poured onto the plate’s surface, creating a smaller concave “gap” in the matter trapped above. Through this act of dropping organic matter into space and letting the natural dispersion determine the “composition,” Skomski is making a reference to the Earth Art Movement of the early ‘70’s, particularly Robert Smithson’s “Asphalt Rundown” and Partially Buried Woodshed.” On the other hand, his choice of materials-earth, salt, bone ash, dried blood and sand-reflects the artist’s underlying message that the body is the site where the original division between the perceiving self and the actualized self occurs, and that the greater share of any subject’s “stuff” is necessarily left behind than can actually be contained by the receiving vessel.

If it seems to the reader that some of the interpretations of Skomski’s work here are too specific to be helpful, then it is worthwhile to point out that many of these ideas are only touchstones, or suggestions of reading for which innumerable equivalents could just as easily apply. An important by-product of such a reading might, however, be to instigate an investigation that each viewer would take on his or her own, having first established that these are some of the fundamental areas of speculative inquiry on which Skomski’s are is based. It also seems worth emphasizing again in this context that such direct use of certain paradoxes of philosophy-particularly those raised by Zen Buddhism, of which Skomski is an active practitioner-is quite unusual for an American artist of his generation, especially one who is so obviously interested in adapting formats and principles raised by an earlier generation into his own work. Yet for an artist like Skomski, the Minimal and Conceptual generation may have ultimately been more interested in pushing aesthetic experimentation for its own sake onto the inevitable next step than in following through on other, more loosely implies, meanings. Skomski’s art, on the other hand, applied these same strategies to a set of problems that is not derived from art-historical models at all, but rather from the inner paradoxes of human existence.

As participants in Skomski’s work, we have been the recipients of a codified exchange in which indeterminacy functions as a characteristic given. Thus, our eyes may actually be relieved to steal back to an appreciation of the physical and stylistic properties of the works themselves, even though we can now understand them as being somehow more conditional. Self-contained entities made up of nearly interchangeable systems, these works placed together create an almost processional atmosphere, one in which the passage of time is memorialized without once being mourned. Resolute and disciplined, these works nevertheless manage to stay quite removed from contemporary perceptions of sculptural elegance and vicissitudes of style. It is perhaps this intellectual clarity which Skomski brings to his work that is most responsible for the feelings of repose which we take away with us, despite the intellectual challenges that his art may present. If artists are condemned to the perpetual creation of self-portraits, then we can consider ourselves fortunate that Thomas Skomski sees himself as someone who’s not that much different from you or me.

Dan Cameron, New York City, February/March 1990