Thomas Skomski:
Terror and Transcendence

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

PAGE  1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6


Either way you worked your way through Self Sufficient, you ended or returned to Man Juice, which stood alone on the right edge of the installation. Like the opening piece, Priapus, this one used Skomski╬s older repertoire of jugs and water. Like Self Army, it was a pie-shaped wedge within which something happened. In this case, three of Skomski╬s jugs were encased in a triangular cage of what appeared to be metal screening but was actually an industrial material known as °expanded steel.Ë (This is a standard industrial product with an appropriate moniker, the result of a process that one could imagine Skomski having invented himself: steel plate is smashed within a die that pops holes in the steel and extrudes it so that it expands by 20% or more and leaves a product that has been opened up. The result is a conflicted material, at certain moments and angles a semitransparent screen, at others an opaque, near-solid plane.

The metal, both the patterned surface and the framing supports, had clear references to David Smith╬s Cubi. But Smith had rendered his swirling textural effects through the masterful use of orbital polishers and, in some cases, patinated by addition of varnishes and paints; Skomski╬s were actually moire patterns whose character changed dramatically as one moved around, into and out of their immediate ocular field. At a distance, they recapitulated the reference to Riley: they were moving curved stripes across the surface, while behind them the space of the cage and its occupants gained or lost presence and mass. Up close, the patterns shrank and broke, and the effort of moving one=s optical consciousness to read the cage as an occupied space or as a pierced surface forced the mind into a sort of visual or optical koan, in which the coincident presence of two paradoxical truths (in this case, closed and open space) resulted in a sort of ocular satori a revelation, a flash of transcendent awareness, that lies at the heart of Zen Buddhist spirituality.

But this was a reference, not a revelation or an equivalent: in this piece, as in Self Army╬s new iteration, the event was accompanied not by a lightening of the soul or a transcendence of the imprisoned, embodied self, but rather an uneasy, almost vertiginous awareness of the limitations of the self, incarcerated within the body, imprisoned by its limited odes of observation, imprisoned by the incomplete fit between soul and embodiment.

Here╬s the paradox of the installation as a whole. One might enter it from the north: first reading a series of remarkable poems about the making of avant-garde art (in the poet=s case, Miles Davis=s most out pieces of jazz), seeing the sentinel of Priapus, then moving to the multiple reproductions of self in Self Army and thence, once again past Priapus, to the confrontation with the limits of perception, in Man Juice. Then one moved down the corridor into the disturbances of Buzzard Luck. Or one passed in the opposite direction: beginning with the passage on the pain of drowning and the unwillingness of the human soul to depart its embodiment, read while peripherally taking in the chain waterfall, with its paradoxical simultaneity of fixed mass and fluid liquidity, imprisonment and freedom; then into the back-lot horrors of the cave and out, finally, to confront the self shattered as the mirror was shattered, shards that reflected the dismembered self. Then one moved northward, to the apparent solace of Self Sufficient.

Either way, it is hard to imagine how even a casual observer could leave the Rooms with a View unshaken. If Skomski╬s subject is the unease of embodiment and its deceptions, his Rooms formed an objective-correlative: pieces that served individually to address aspects of the quandary of the human, assembled into larger and more ominous embodiments of the problem, and in their sum evoked a state of uneasy hyperconsciousness of the fragility of the connective tissue that binds the physical and the metaphysical selves into an illusory whole.

By 11am on the Monday of deinstall, two piles of construction detritus lay tumbled-down in the centers of the now-ruined spaces where Skomski╬s installation had been, just two hours before. Where the preparators were working, someone had turned on the boom box that must have been hidden in the center of the cave in Buzzard Luck. It played out Cohen's dour apocalyptic litany:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died

Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long stem rose
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that you love me baby
Everybody knows that you really do
Everybody knows that you've been faithful
Ah give or take a night or two
Everybody knows you've been discreet
But there were so many people you just had to meet
Without your clothes
And everybody knows

Everybody knows, everybody knows
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows, everybody knows
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

And everybody knows that it's now or never
Everybody knows that it's me or you
And everybody knows that you live forever
Ah when you've done a line or two
Everybody knows the deal is rotten
Old Black Joe's still pickin' cotton
For your ribbons and bows
And everybody knows

And everybody knows that the Plague is coming
Everybody knows that it's moving fast
Everybody knows that the naked man and woman
Are just a shining artifact of the past
Everybody knows the scene is dead
But there's gonna be a meter on your bed
That will disclose
What everybody knows

And everybody knows that you're in trouble
Everybody knows what you've been through
From the bloody cross on top of Calvary
To the beach of Malibu
Everybody knows it's coming apart
Take one last look at this Sacred Heart
Before it blows
And everybody knows

Everybody knows, everybody knows
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

Oh everybody knows, everybody knows
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows

The preparators were done by noon: the texts had been sandwiched and shrink-wrapped, the jugs emptied of their water and crated, the chain-box closed, My Baby Floats deflated, folded and put in a carton, the carved column and the headless man bubble-wrapped, shrink-wrapped and set with the other pieces on a loading dock to be taken by truckers back to Skomski╬s studio. The walls were in a dumpster in the back; a maintenance woman was busy vacuuming the floor, where despite her efforts, the remains of the Rooms and their contents left their traces in the carpeting: lines of flattened fiber marking out the geometry of the walls, the locations of the vitrines, pedestals and columns, and, where the cave had been, a strange pattern of slightly blackened rubbery residues, as if a small building a dacha, perhaps, or the makeshift shelter of a homeless person had lost its mass and risen, dissipating into the air of the library that surrounded it.

Body and spirit contest each other in Thomas Skomski╬s work. They are his subjects, and the tension between them is also his subject. Sometimes these issues are explicit, sometimes maddeningly explicit; at times in his career, piece after piece in a series or cluster has seemed more like an illustration of a conclusion come to by the artist in some other sphere, far from the act of making. At other times, a single work or a body of work will instead seem frustratingly to embody a failure of resolution, as if the artist believed he had come to a revelation but discovered too late in the process that his conclusions were flawed or incomplete.

Yet Skomski himself isn╬t uncomfortable with these difficulties they aren╬t his difficulties, so much as they are difficulties presented to the viewer and shared by the artist. Even the most elegant pieces, works that might echo a sculptor like Noguchi or Calder in their quality of completeness and internal self-sufficiency, end up rather quickly unmasking themselves as sites of conflict and tension. And the larger, rougher, more unsettled pieces insist that the viewer work at the resolution, and the work is not exactly unrewarding but rather unfinished or unresolvable within the sanctioned place where one confronts a work of art.

Skomski speaks of this tension in terms drawn from the maverick Jungian psychologist James Hillman: between an aspiration to spirit, a movement upward and away from embodiment, and a countervailing aspiration toward soul, which is downward-yearning, a burrowing into the bodily and physical. This intertwining of apparent opposites is essential to the rhetoric of Skomski╬s piecesfthey╬re meant to ask of the viewer a response that is simultaneously physical and metaphysical.

This is partly why Skomski scales his pieces as he does. More than one critic has argued that the smaller works operate more satisfyingly than do the larger pieces; but it=s more a matter of their operating within different discomfort zones. The smaller works deceive, ingratiating themselves if only briefly; the larger ones demand almost stridently that you take their issues as your own.