Walking on the Bottom of the Ocean

First Impressions of Thomas Skomski’s sculpture often begin with recognizable forms and a strong material presence which quickly evaporates into metaphors, puzzles and illusions. An emblematic piece for this artist is the 1983 “Saturn,” a round stone, the size of a football, encased in a wire screen covering. Just how functionally impossible this combination is, is only one of the resonances of the work and the suggestion that the stone is neither protected nor contained is compelling. Removed from its natural context, it becomes a packaged gift of weighty volume, visible through its trappings but unknowable. Similar tensions almost literally unfold in other pieces in which sand piled into cones and steel punctured into screens are married to provide unexpected visual consequences, like sheets of copper whose reflections resemble flames. In a work titled “Bloom” from 1995, bulky wooden forms are wedged onto giant steel mesh sheets that unfold like pages in a book. Resting uneasily on their open sheets, they are like words whose meanings exist apart from the page. The relationships between invisible constraints and elusive protection, between fragile looking, sturdy screens is like that of apparently delicate nets in which giant creatures are trapped.

Throughout his career Skomski has consistently combined inappropriate or unmatched pairs to suggest resistance and confinement, function and dysfunction; for example, a perfectly simple, minimal steel chair lacks the right half of its seat and the left half of its back. This work from an important 1997 exhibition, “The False Self,” took as its imaginative framework a tableau of full-scale domestic objects ­ doors, tables and chairs ­ but skewed them so that subtle displacements, like a rotating door, challenged perceptions as well as expectations. Skomski very deliberately considers what is less than obvious in relationships between subjectivity and objectivity, between the visible and the comprehensible. And, while it is easy to note the obvious differences between materials and their formal qualities, his accomplishment transcends an aesthetic of facile oppositions or simple dualities. Skillfully manipulating natural and industrial materials, Skomski’s initial intent is to appreciate the inherent qualities of his choices, how steel mesh catches light, and then to uncover a paradox that creates an alteration. Indeed, his discovery in 1986 that illuminating a kinetic tray of water would produce a wave pattern blanketing everything in a room was the origin for this narrative environment.

In his installation, Skomski explores the impact of theatrical effects and staging of perceptual phenomena on conceptual and emotional experiences. Two different ways of dealing with wave patterns produced from light and shadows engulf the viewer so that we, as the title suggests, walk on the floor of the ocean. And the two pieces are vastly different sculptural presences evoking different readings. Beyond the domestic equivalents that he recently considered, is an expanded scale and magnified range of associations which more dramatically implicates his viewers. The photograph on the exhibition announcement shows two pairs of sinewy feet which appear as mirrored reflections, one standing on the soles of the other. Yet, like so many of Skomski’s pairs, this strange duo actually portrays a relationship of dependency and support, in this case between two different individuals.

“Popeye” is the title of a floor-to-ceiling, enormous cage of expanded steel lattice, in which six steel chains are threaded through a 2-1/2’ vertical steel tube. Securing the elaborate construction together; that center element (the tube) is simultaneously tied to and restrained by its chains, and the title underscores the exaggerations of a muscle-bound sailor. Given Skomski’s self-reflective wit, there is also an implied exasperation with the superhuman struggles of artmaking. More romantically, other readings conjure up the thrill of sunken treasures tethered and rusting in silent underwater traps. Initially, viewers walk into the darkened gallery and are caught up in a warm light and expanding network of crisscrossing shadows; before the piece is completely understood, we are attracted and involved.

The agnostic struggles implied in the burly “Popeye” are nowhere in evidence in the ghostly environment that unfolded at the other side of the gallery. While the underwater readings of “Popeye” were the result of lighting that cast undulating shadows ribboning out from the stretched steel sheets, the ocean illusions are far more literal here and underscored by the swishing sound of water which moves back and forth in two Plexiglas water trays attached to motors mounted to the ceiling with blue halogen bulbs. They throw cool patterns that contrast with the golden shadows at the other side of the room. One enters this eerie enclosure after attempting to see a pair constructions made of steel armature delineated through screens of high tech nylon netting installed like shower curtains to define and alter the space.

What is striking in this ambitious, beautiful fabrication is that Skomski has upped the ante from his earlier studies where sculptural forms not only performed volumetric effects but also perceptual illusions to suggest ceremonial offerings. Never Duchampian despite his droll sense of humor, Skomski’s assemblages have to do with a belief in symbolism inspired by studies of Eastern religion and in systems of meaning that the artist poetically struggles to represent. This work boldly offers an otherworldly invitation to his viewers who move from gauzy, atmospheric effects to shifted consciousness as the artist invents the psychic environments from which his oddly elegant objects might be culled. As mysterious as the shrouded bluish chamber looks when we stand outside, inside the enigmatic forms, wrapped tightly in sheer netting, delineate a tub and vertical cage whose centerpiece is a cork but whose scale is that of our bodies. A bit of a tree root hangs from a hook in this melancholy assemblage and the coolness of the space hints at a sinister inflection, the performance of unknown ceremonies and watery graves. Once again the netting that captures light and allows us to see through to the interior reminds us that vision and comprehension are not always coexistent. Like the children’s game of paper, scissors, stone, Skomski’s aesthetic twists depend on rich confrontations where rationality is traded for imaginative wagers. When we abandon the links between representation and reality, then we can enter an underwater dreamscape where Skomski transforms his illusions into submerged recollections.

Judith Russi Kirshner
Dean of School of Art and Architecture
University of Illinois
Chicago Circle