Thomas Skomski:
Terror and Transcendence

Peter Bacon Hales
Art History Department
The University of Illinois at Chicago
December 3, 2003

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It was 9:15 on Monday September 15, 2003, and the preparators at the Chicago Public Library Cultural Center were taking down Thomas Skomski's Rooms With Views. They'd made quick work of the rooms themselves; preparators are also demo men. Most of them are artists and most of them have done day work as carpenters and rehabbers; they usually have specialties: drywall finishing, cabinetry, floor laying, tile work. Their relationship to art is physical and they don't usually rupture that category into art and not-art. Theirs is an appreciation of intelligence, discipline, skill, finish that's appropriate, the decision to stop at the right time and declare the unfinished to be finished. They like Skomski's work.

Right now they were wrestling with the body that stood in the dark cave one entered in the southern installation of Skomski's large, two-room installation. This was the piece titled Buzzard Luck, in which water, one of the artist's most sustained subjects, had taken on a murderous darkness. Actually, water as a physical material had evaporated from this side of the installation (it was there, as we'll see, in the other room), leaving a strangely uneasy sense of confusion. One began by reading a lengthy passage, fascinating the way an auto accident on the freeway is irresistible to the eye, on the nature of drowning, a passage full of revelatory horror. To its right, a waterfall, seductively reminiscent of the 19th century picturesque, but made of shining chain, brutal and unforgiving, spilling with a sort of crafted illusionism typical of Skomski's work. To its left, a stolen stalactite or a frozen stream of water leaking into the space, but made of glass shards pressed into immobility by a pipe clamp. Beyond that, an extruded pyramid, fallen on its side, held in its center a ball that seemed at any moment about to break loose and roll, but didn't. Below it was a tube within a triangular space, simultaneously a sinuous counterpart to the claustrophobic closing segment, and a writhing object hovering between living and not-living. Around the corner a chair floated or hung, ungainly and miserable, tacked to the back of the stage-set wall, with the rough-trade evidence of the artist's failed illusionism in bad lights, crinkled black paper stapled to two-by-fours and wallboard that served on its public side to diffidently hang the text that began:

"The instinct not to breathe underwater is so strong that it overcomes the agony of running out of air. No matter how desperate the drowning person is, he doesn't inhale until he's on the verge of losing consciousness. At that point there=s so much carbon dioxide in the blood, and so little oxygen, that chemical sensors in the brain trigger an involuntary breath whether he's underwater or not. This is called the break point...."

Around the corner, past the abject chair, through a doorway hanging with equally abject aeration tubes, one entered the cave, one's feet strangely ill-suited to hold the body upright, sinking irregularly into a floor of rubber and air. There in an anthracite-walled enclosure a viewer might stand awkwardly to listen to Leonard Cohen's Everybody Knows, while the mannequin in a pinstripe corporate suit, headless and, ill-embodied (not headless, even, but decapitated) stood in the corner, and on the far wall a child's inflatable inner-tube hung, emblazoned with its moniker: my baby float. When I stood by the exhibit, diffidently imitating a gallery guard or, sometimes, a patient friend or parent, those who made the excursion all the way into the room left quickly, visibly upset. Perhaps they'd had the time to let their eyes adjust so they'd seen the brutality of the decapitation that rendered the body headless; perhaps they=d listened to Cohen long enough to hear the lyrics; perhaps they'd lost their balance on the flooring and leaned against the coal-mine wall only to have it crumple beneath their hand or shoulder. Most of them returned to the recitation, the chainfall, and then turned to the final triangulated space, around the corner, in which broken mirror extruded into the receding infinity of the space, disintegrating the image one has of oneself, and drawing the visitor to walk forward and be dismembered by the fatal centrifugal pull of the artist=s mastery of space and rhetoric. It was hard not to leave shaken, disorganized of thought, wanting a stiff drink in a busy place.

Buzzard Luck, Skomski named this half of the installation. It wasn't a title he allowed to be explained. If you were black, or from Southern Illinois or Kentucky or the like, or a down-luck farmer, you'd already know what it meant. The Reverend Elijah Gregory from Mississippi, who lives next door to Skomski's studio, said it one way: can't kill nothing; and nothing will die. I learned it another: too weak to kill; too tough to die.

Buzzard Luck was about liminality: about falling into the crack between two states: about drowning; about sinking; about losing your balance, your confidence, your illusion; about being dead but not knowing it yet, about the draw toward disintegration and the pain of disembodiment.

Now, though, the men had hammered the walls to flinders, pulled the chain waterfall down and dumped it noisily in a box, enclosed the headless man in shrink wrap, and tossed the remnants of space and boundary into wheeled waste-bins. Their attention had turned to the austere artifacts of transcendence assembled in the north room's installation, Self Sufficient. These were pieces ostensibly without the anxiety and disturbance of Buzzard Luck. They were, in first reading, the result, the evidence, of a state of transition, between body and spirit, between self and beyond-self. Quiet, balanced, finished, beautiful, they bore witness to the discipline of Skomski's three decades of sustained attentiveness to a series of artistic problems. And here the interlocking relations of materials, ideas and what might most broadly be called theologies, comes into play. One might talk of these series as based in materials (glass, water, wood, screen), or aesthetic and visual events (transparency, distortion, reflection, multiplication, fragmentation), or formal problem-sets (volume and mass, closed and open space, optical space, proprioceptive space, illusionistic space), or the broadest human themes: the embodied, physical, imprisoned self, and the open, questing, transcendent self.

After the profligate, almost messy multiplicity of Buzzard Luck, Self Sufficient consisted of just three parts, linked by materials: by water and glass, primarily, but also by a transition from isolated singularity to a symmetrical multiplicity. In the front, a filled water jug stood upon a pedestal carved with elegant fastidiousness from a roof-beam. The water cast a prismatic arc of light on the white wall behind it, and in turn the glass of the jug reflected, refracted, and transmuted. There was an uncomfortable tension between the organicism of the wood, accentuated by its treatment, and the qualities implied by the water jug and its contents. Only if you spent time with the piece, or perhaps knew the meaning of its title, Priapus, might you find yourself, suddenly, staring at an erect, sky-aimed penis made not of flesh or dildo-plastic, but of light an artifact of the bottle's shape, the water's properties of refraction, and a precise location of the object in relation to the light source above it and the wall behind.

This conversion of meditative silence into anxious surprise has been a characteristic of Skomski's art throughout his career. In the case of this installation, the resuscitating and transforming of earlier objects gave them a renewed and even amplified disturbance. When Priapus had been originally exhibited, it had a wall label with the title; if you knew your Greek mythology, you were hipped to the visual surprise. This time, the title was tucked into the exhibition's opening materials, far from the immediacy of the objects.

To the left of that piece, punched into the walled space behind, was a recast version of an earlier mirror-piece, Self Army, in which the pie-shaped wedge of space, mirrored on each side, created a set of multiples forming a perfect circle, each one sufficiently perfect in illusion that, with even a little time, disorientation set in: which one of these images of the self was real? when in fact none was real, as all were reflections. Turn to one side or the other, and you might confront yourself as the artist had himself photographed, staring down his doppelganger, observed with more or less stoicism or disinterest by the other sixteen Skomski's.

Skomski had altered this piece in a way that made its presence surreptitiously sinister, anticipatory of the disruptions that would occur with Buzzard Luck. He modified the floor. Originally a typical bourgeois hardwood, neatly assembled and shinily varnished, evoking a living room or other public space, now the floor was constructed of linoleum squares in blue and white. Here one shifted from living room to kitchen or bath, but the transition wasn't at all comfortable. Instead, the floor distorted and wove itself around the fulcrum where the mirrors met, and the smallest movement of the head or body resulted in a strange, disorienting, waver of the pattern. In a discussion of the piece, Skomski had offhandedly, even ironically, called this the Bridget Riley floor; the comment is revealing, not only of Skomski's repertory of references to the history of art, particularly late-modern art, but of his often stubborn quest to drag the formalist back into some experiential state. Riley had served as a model of sorts for him; the enervation of her work by its insertion into a category of visual-effects-art was something Skomski resisted fiercely. If, as the poet T.S. Eliot once wrote, each responsible work of art subtly recasts all the work that went before it, then Skomski's renewed Self Army reminded those who caught the reference to Riley that she, too, had once been a powerful spokesperson for an art of visceral experience.

But the modification to Self Army didn't just result in a reinvigorated awareness on the part of the viewer that to view art was to participate; it also manipulated the habits of sight and stance, the ocular and proprioceptive connections among body, mind, and consciousness, that are meant to operate below the level of consciousness. In the new Self Army one became uncomfortably aware of oneself as a self, as a body awkwardly situated in space, as a mind that sought simultaneously to enter the world and to render the problematic nature of that entry invisible and unconscious, and as a consciousness a subject, a soul, a spirit ill-at-ease with life. Self Army in its original version had been a rather ingratiating little formalist and perceptualist sleight-of-sight; now it transformed that ease into unease.