Thomas Skomski: Walking on the bottom of the Ocean

Chicago Reader
May 29, 1998
Fred Camper

Thomas Skomski's works are, if anything, even further from Haacke's social content than Judd's piece. Skomski's Door (1997), part of "Reality Bites," is not much more than an ordinary wooden door -- perhaps the most banal of the objects in the show. He covers it with graphite, however, giving the grain a heavy metallic look and a nonfunctional weight, then contradicts that feeling by mounting the piece a few inches from the wall, apparently free-floating, where it can be rotated by the viewer.

Skomski's door is a symbol both for doors in general and for the opposites of opening/transformation and barrier/enclosure. But by making it turn rather than open, Skomski deflects attention from its original function; by replacing the unusual and more symmetrical one, he conflates the opposite functions of a door. Never strictly "closed" or "open," a rotating door suggests that these conventionally opposed states are really not so different.

Skomski, an Illinois native born in 1948 and currently living in Evanston, acknowledges the effect of the 60s on his development, mentioning the influence of both Zen Buddhism and hallucinogenic drugs. But if his work seeks unities rather than differences, he achieves them with an articulate precision. Popeye -- one of two works in his show at the Northern Illinois University Art Gallery - is a large metal cage, each of its four sides consisting of two layers of rusty latticed metal. At the center of the cage, heavy chains tied to the upper and lower edges converge within a hollow cylinder. This seems a fearsome prison, its chains taut and binding, straining against the armlike cylinder as if ready to break it open with the suddenness of a cartoon character's biceps expanding. Just as important, however, are the moire patterns the lattices create and the multiple shadows they cast on the floor outside, contrasting the physicality of the metal with the insubstantiality of light. This cage might be a sanctuary as well as a trap, combining confinement with protection.

Even better is the moody, elusive larger piece. In the darkened gallery, four walls of fine nylon mesh make a room for two metal frames supporting shapes also made of nylon mesh - a large cube and an elongated half cylinder. Among other eccentric details is a gnarly root suspended from a pole. Above each of the two structures a light shines through a tank filled with water kept moving by small motors. Rippling patterns of very pale light cross the floor and the mesh structures, blending with them. It's hard to separate the light from the mesh, or even to know whether the reflected, glowing light one sees is coming from the surface of the mesh objects or from their inside faces.

Looking at Helmboro Country and many of the other referential pieces in ÁReality Biteso provokes the same kind of uncomfortable cultural analysis involved in voting. Skomski's untitled installation reminded me that the purity of abstract work isn't necessarily a bad thing. Avoiding commentary on our object-laden world, his piece in essence destroys the very idea of an object. These mesh structures don't seem "things" because we can't see them separately from the light that illuminates them. This in turn recalls a more fundamental truth, one the object fetishism of our consumer culture denies: everything we see is a result of the interaction of our brain with light - material objects, light, and consciousness itself are inseparable elements in a single dance.


Chicago Tribune

November 13, 1997
Alan Artner

Thomas Skomski is a Chicago-based sculptor whose exhibition history includes more solo shows on the West Coast and in Japan than in his hometown.

The simplest explanation is commercial - what alliances had been formed by galleries that represented him over the years - but an aspect affecting the outcome also has been spiritual, as Skomski's art reveals a meditative purity unusual to most sculpture produced in Chicago.

His recent work at the Fassbender Gallery extends into contemplative inclination into an enviroment composed of three discrete pieces that each blur the line between sculpture and furniture even as the enviroment evokes a living space by some modernist architect-designer such as Gerrit Rietveld.

The difference is that Skomski has not created an actual room, and his interest in the project has not been purely formal.

The enviroment is at once a provocation toward and way station for meditation, as each piece in it presents a paradox: a chair that does not allow sitting, a table that prohibits eating, and a bed that frustrates sleeping.

Skomski offers a written statement relating all this to aspects of the self and, hence, to other reflective questions that are as important to the pieces as their formal perfection. So to take in only the appearance of the work is to miss its larger purpose.

The same holds true for the four other sculptures of the show, though they have few similar formal conncetions.

"Protubence," for example is a small square plexiglass column that culminates in an atomized landscape with one nipple-like thrust. It would seem to have no relation to a wooden door that has been rubbed with graphite and mounted so as to rotate on a neighboring wall. But both use light as a trigger for meditation and, again, locate the ultimate point of the work outisde the work itself.

Skomski's large free-standing wood piece, from the "Not One Not Two" series, is more deceptive, insofar as it appears to beg for only formal analysis. Yet the work proves handsome but vacant if viewers take it exclusively at face value as an exercise in post-Minimal object making. Its reason for being is, once more, somewhere else.

Here's brilliant work that continually forces you to read between the lines.



November 1998
Paul Krainak

Thomas Skomski's sculpture presents unusual problems and unique opportunities. Skomski is known for creating perceptual paradoxes, coaxing fragments of Surrealist parlance into newly encrypted formal allegories. His studio pratice is heavily influenced by a study of Eastern philosophy and his sculpture is informed by rituals of obsessive observation and reflection. The works often give the impression of artifacts that are isolated from a body of evidence or history. In this sense they are museological, i.e. rarefied, objects whose aura is sustained by an impression of linkage with an arcane text.

A constellation of three objects served as a kind of matrix for the rest of the exhibition. A chair, cot, and table, constructed primarily of steel plate and angle iron, provided a tableau with allegiances to both domestic and industrial environments. Each object has a suave design eccentricity: a missing plank, an undualating rubber table top, and an inverted cushion which are alien to their host function. These formal riddles are carried by skillfully fabricated material-conscious sculpture whose meanings are ephemeral and quixotic. The objects are poised with confidence and yet remain somehow fugitive. They seem to occupy a space in between matter itself and the faux theater of the furniture. Though the work is rigorous, with stark geometry and elegant surfaces, the group does not easily oblige the body and any inference to the home or to work is smoke and mirrors. Skomski is mainly interested in the way meaning ciculates around a few primary icons. Introspection and stillness dominate.

Another example of the sculptor's conceptual subterfuge is Door. Suspended on a wall several inches above the floor is a black, 32-by-84-inch paneled door. Stained and dusted with powdered graphite it has a saturated matte surface that absorbs light into its hand-rubbed dimensions. Viewers are invited not to open, but to spin the door on a gear fixed above and behind the center axis of its dark plane. Designed to rotate slowly, the piece still disorients because of its uncentered pivot and it echoes the inexplicable mutability of the assembled furniture.

Two other pieces occupy more traditional sculptural terrioty. One is a translucent white column and the other a partially bisected six-foot wooden cylinder. Each object conflates the Minimalist creed of essential, unmediated experience with formal illusion and artifice. The column, which first appears to be high grade marble, is actually sandblasted Plexiglas. It bears a small mound of powdered crystal. But the powder also is a deception as it turns out to be a heat-gun-induced surface protusion. The rupturing cylinder, titled Not One, Not Two, is titled so radically as to be near collapse. This perfectly planed barrel-structured volume alludes to containment and spillage, but of what? The vessel is frozen in a state of obscure transformation and the column observes a nameless commemoration.

Skomski's work is often discussed in terms of his inquiry into the practive of the koan, a Zen method of apprehending the nonrational and illusionary in life, an aid for fledgling Buddhists to achieve transcendence. Skomski prefers to use materials and compositions which are easilt associative and which confound traditions of design and picturing, thus creating artworks that, like the unanswerable koan, stand as instruments for contemplation of non-meaning. Moreover, careful alignments of properties such as lightness and density, corrosion and delicacy, brittleness and polish are arranged to address processes of sensing which respectfully acknowledge, but go beyond formal convention, utility, and language. The resulting works are like questions in that they have a subject and predicate, as does the riddle of a koan, but they are skewed to assert what he loves most about art - that it can be solemnly illogical and imaginary.