Thomas Skomski:
Terror and Transcendence

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

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In Skomski's oeuvre, you engage physically with the work, large or small, or you're frustratingly forbidden that engagement, heightening the awareness of desire. In some cases, and I'm thinking particularly of a series of pieces he did of torsos, constructed by encasing in fabric piles of la paz stones,the sort of water-worn stones found in zen gardensB one wants to poke at the thing; in others, to rub, to fondle, or even to kick. Some of these pieces, particularly the large public pieces, allow for this interaction, and reward it.

In a very different sort of way, the cages, tanks, light pieces, and water-jug series also invite and frustrate our physical engagement. Viewers pace around the cages, bending over to peer into them, searching for the source of the effects, perceptual or emotional, that these works evoke. Often the light pieces require, and reward, movement, as the effects cascade, reorganize and transform while one moves toward, away, or across them. They also invite, and sometimes insist upon, a heightened sensitivity and awareness of oneself, one's environment, and the dynamics between them.

This quality of physical address of a work located in particular spot, but also of a work that directs itself to the viewer, and expects an equal redress and response accounts for what might be called a democratic habit of mind and creation. Skomski makes pieces that are simultaneously accessible and demanding. They dont depend on a fund of art-critical knowledge beyond the common knowledge of most dwellers in the contemporary world; there aren╬t codes or lexicons that separate the cognoscenti from the rabble. (That╬s why Chicago╬s Cultural Center was an appropriate place for Rooms; it is both a major venue in the city and a public facility, open to and used by everyone from the homeless to the hoi-polloi. It's also why the titles of the individual pieces weren╬t prominent in the installations. Once you noticed the giant golden penis of light preserved in the water jug, you didn╬t need to know what priapus meant.) Instead, they demand equal work from all, though of course the better you have trained yourself the more attentive you are, the more observant of yourself and your environment, the more patient, tolerant, inquisitive the more rapidly and more fully will the pieces unfold.

Skomski╬s history artistic, personal, family is in concert with this quality to the art. He was born and raised in Argo, Illinois, a workingman's town, a company town for Argo Cornstarch to the southwest of Chicago. His father was a tool-and-die maker and a metal-fabrication specialist for Alpha Products, a manufacturer of kitchen appliances. His father made things for a living; his mother made things as a part of living, things of an eccentric and ornate uselessness: Christmas ornaments that passed beyond elaborateness; ornately woven and fastidiously knotted fabric, yarn and metal objects, all of them requiring immense expenditures of time and an almost fetishistic demand for precision. These came in part from her immigrant status, her desire to keep hold of traditions from her own childhood. English was the first language in his house, though for both his parents it was a second language, and Polish was the language of secrets, parental conspiracies and fights.

Skomski did his undergraduate art-school stint at Northern Illinois University, a school that was to the visual arts what North Texas State was to jazz: an open-armed education at the highest level, offered to everyone. His memory, echoed by others of that era, was that critique wasn╬t esoteric, wasn╬t art-historicist, and it wasn╬t so much directive as confirmational. You found your materials, you found your problems, and the school and its faculty offered the tools (conceptual, critical, visual, mechanical) and the training to use those tools with finesse, as you sought to determine just what was your path, your vector.

NIU was located in De Kalb, a town surrounded by cornfields waving with the genetic engineering of the famed De Kalb Seed Company. It was a good place to be isolated and to immerse yourself in your work, but it was also an hour's fast drive into Chicago, which in the early >70s was encountering a moment of artistic celebrity, as the native school of imagists entered an international vogue. Some of these artists came out to De Kalb, to lecture and sometimes to teach, and the students and teachers drove in to see this work, with its blunt iconoclasm, its psychedelic psychoanalytics, and its cartoonlike humor and bravado, besting the cooler late-modern historicism of people like Larry Poons. Chicago's artistic culture had been provincial for so long that it had developed a sort of resolute communitarianism; it was inward-looking and inward-supporting, particularly in its institutions and venues, which were often artist-run cooperatives or were directed by artists. It was also communitarian in its relationship to the factory-town, immigrant-based, sprawlingly energetic heritage of the city; many of the most successful artists were, like Skomski, children or grandchildren of working-class immigrants, and they treated their art like the crafts their fathers and mothers had practiced on factory floors and in piece-work.

It was natural, then, that Skomski would move to Chicago after graduation and would settle down to a double life as a commercial artist (a step up from his father's work, but factory work, nonetheless) while maintaining a studio and gallery on Chicago's northside, in a storefront next to an immigrant butcher's. (Mornings, you might see, from the suburban trains that rumbled across the street, the butcher hanging up a couple of sides of beef in the window, while Skomski simultaneously replaced one carved and assembled wooden piece with another.) Skomski had graduated from NIU in 1972; he was a working-class child of the counterculture, and he carried from that combination a reverence for art that could be democratically demanding. When he worked as a co-curator of a locally celebrated not-for-profit arts center in Chicago, he was noted for his slow, even taciturn habits of speech. It wasn╬t so much that he was reticent, reported a collaborator of his, but that he actively thought through every word before speaking it. Sometimes it seemed he was translating from one language to another.

This makes a good deal of sense given the work he was doing at the time, and the ways his work would develop over the next decade. It suggests that Skomski was a fluent visual communicator (evidenced by his success as a graphic designer, a flourishing career he abandoned in order to teach and sculpt without the interruptions of contract work and deadlines), and wary of words. That there was a certain amount of romanticism in his own belief that words were deceptive, weapons of manipulation, while visual gestures were open and accessible, is a possibility he's come to accept with good humor.

By contrast, he was strikingly in harmony with his own embodiment; he reveled in the physicality of running, of lifting and moving heavy things, the physical demands of wood carving, metalwork, and the like. Even then, he was prone to disappear for long stretches of time, sticking his canoe in the back of his pickup truck, parking at a headwaters, and then embarking without plan and, as some tell it, without the sort of accurate USGS topo maps most back-country packers consider essential. Once, the story had it, he disappeared; injured, he had no one who knew where he was, what his destination had been, any of the routine knowledge that forest rangers, park officials, and state police depend upon when they mount a search.

The risks he took to test his physical prowess were tinged with something like a repressed rage, deflected into something like self-destructiveness. Yet there was also a peculiar logic to these self-endangerments. They involved a plunge, not into, but further into, solitude. But this was a Thoreau-esque solitude, involving hardship and privation, and occurring within a wild natural setting where it might be possible for him to lose himself, literally and figuratively.

These elements, apparent at the early stages of his mature career, became the subject of long strings of work, each of which might be seen to address a different aspect of the dialectics of body and spirit, loss of self and reinvigoration of identity. One might consider the cage pieces to be explorations of a body from which the animating center has been lifted, just as they are simultaneously explorations of the formalist sculptural problem of volume and skin.

Often these themes weren╬t explicit at all. In an early piece, a sort of haw-haw surrealism caught in a workingman╬s midwestern bar joke with all its mordant, cynical fatalism, two horses on wheeled bases hobby-horses, in other words were carved from a single piece of wood, resulting in a common sculptor╬s problem where to connect the supposedly separate entities so that the integrity of the material wasn=t violated but the integrity of the subject was also maintained. Skomski carved the second horse with its head stubbornly pushed up the ass of the horse in front of it. It began with the instantiation of a mordantly bawdy insult; behind that was the offer to the viewer to recognize a sort of barroom proverb about pushing impatiently to get ahead, and its stupid consequences. But these were, after all, horses without volition, hobby-horses, on wheels, recapitulations of Victorian children's toys. The miserable conjoining of the two wasn╬t a consequence, an effect or a lesson. It was a condition of being.

This early piece was something like a Zen koan, one of those assertions whose simultaneous absurdity on the level of the commonplace gave way to a certain transcendent logic that appeared only after a disciplined turning away from the logic of commonplace common sense. But there was nothing exotic about Skomski╬s sculptural aphorism, no banzai pine or Japanese rock garden raked daily by a Buddhist monk: just a horse, pushing at another horse, its forward momentum matched by the stubborn intractability of the horse in front, until the inevitable happened. Within a cheap laugh, a discourse on the illusion of will: free will as a dumb-ass fate, standing atop the wheeled carts of powerlessness, passivity, fate.

Skomski╬s Horses had another trait characteristic of what might be termed his quasi-historicist works: it seemed almost accidentally to refer to monuments in the history of art, whether individual works, or the oeuvre of artist-heroes of the outsize sort. In this case, the entire genre of monumental equestrian sculptures came quickly to mind, but so also did the quixotic works of the verist surrealists and, more obliquely but more pointedly, the tradition of Renaissance Petrarchan triumph portraits, in which the heroic subject was portrayed on a cart, pulled by mythological creatures and presided over by angels, or perhaps merely putti, plumply defying gravity, physics, and aeronautical engineering to hover, tugging at the harness-leather. I=m thinking here, in particular, of the reverses of the twin portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino by Piero della Francesca. Piero knew how ugly was his patron, ugly in physique, ugly in habits, ugly in style. He disguised his disgust, secreting it in the details. Skomski╬s Horses has a different mordancy; there's no one at all on these hobby-horses not Duke or patron, not politician or general, not monarchic child (and here I=m thinking of Velasquez's Portrait of the Balthazar Carlos On a Pony), nor scion of a plutocrat (Van Dyke, William Merritt Chase). And here, as often occurs in Skomski╬s work, another verbal phrase, salty and colloquial, surfaces: a horse's ass. Skomski╬s Horses aren╬t horses, that is they are stubbornly human, as we know from the instant we set eyes upon the piece.