Thomas Skomski:
Terror and Transcendence

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

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That Skomski╬s pieces might, by the very absence of reference, declare their relationship to master works of art history shouldn╬t be a surprise. It╬s not a mark of the hubris of the artist; it's the consequence of the world in which we the artist and his audience have been born and live: a world in which masterworks are available to everyone, but in a manner often shorn of their particularity, their dependence on the resonance of their time, place and local circumstances. We╬ve all had Darkness at Noon, the doze-through art history survey, or Pics, Sticks and Flicks, the art-appreciation class; we╬ve all paid our $7 for the audio tour of the blockbuster exhibition; we╬ve all read the bio or seen the biopic. There's a repertoire of art full of aura but leached of significance. Skomski╬s work returns to the monumental themes, and returns to the long tradition of imbedding that monumentality in the local, with all its crudity and directness intact.

Horses was an early piece, one of a small group of pieces, mainly wood assemblies, modifications or carvings, that shared this bifurcation between the heroic and the banal, between the transcendent and the pragmatically physical. Another was the Rocking Table of 1982. Originally commissioned by a dance company for use in a performance, it was an exercise in the tension between immobility and freedom. It was also deceptively simple in conception: a simple wooden side-table combined with an equally stark rocking chair. The piece seemed, again, a bit dumb-ass, if you didn╬t take it seriously, didn╬t give it your full attention. On a flat floor, the table-top remained perfectly horizontal, a result of Skomski╬s stubborn precision of execution. Put something on it, though anything larger than a wedding ring, heavier than the paper napkin they give you with your wine or seltzer at a gallery opening and the table responded with a sly tilt that slid your mistake off the edge and set the thing rocking. It was a piece about those formal laws of sculpture: balance, symmetry, static and dynamic equilibrium. It was also, like so many of Skomski╬s pieces, a test of the viewer: inattentive, and you missed it; arrogant, hyperactive, heedlessly exploitative of your surroundings, and you got a trouser cuff full of wine or a coffee stain down your skirt. There was more than a little suppressed rage in the piece, and its sly, gleeful sadism snuck up on you.

Rocking Table was a piece that discussed the body as a kinetic expression of the internal state. If you were rough with the world, it roughed you up, or you missed it entirely. If you were paranoid, aggrieved, prepared to be a victim, you had your predilections confirmed. If you were quizzical, attentive in a sidelong way, if you had the habit of interrogating your surroundings, granting to inanimate objects the right to carry animation and intentionality, you got yourself a koan of the classic sort, a paradox or contradiction that had its being nonetheless and so required that you reorganize your worldview, even if briefly.

Much has been made of Skomski╬s Zen practice, his Buddhist cultism. The label has annoyed Skomski enough that he╬s made pieces that are commentaries on the question. One such was a combine piece, uncharacteristically rough and ugly: an anachronistic red Honeywell thermostat, upon which he glued a cheap gilded shrine-Buddha with an awkwardly outsize pair of Walgreen╬s reading glasses hooked around the neck, and a white-wax aura placed behind him that was actually a found objectfresidue in the bottom of a bucket. It╬s an infuriating piece, and that's its intention. In a set of notes Skomski wrote about the piece, he scribbled: Zen-like= has little to do with minimalism. To study Zen is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to allow the 10,000 things to come forward as self.

This was one of a collection of pieces that Skomski considers preliminary studies to Buzzard Luck. It has the roughness, the eschewing of the crafted finish, that's found in parts of the installation. A foiled ladder, which we╬ll confront in a moment, is another. But he also speaks of the dumbbell and clamp pieces in this context, and it╬s a revealing slip. Of the foil pieces, he left a note: distress/loss... and another word, illegible. It could be of humor,@ but it could also be human. Is it that loss of the human that accompanies transcendence in most mystical faiths: is that what he╬s trying to say? Or is it something else: that distress and loss are what╬s central to our common humanity? Even Skomski can╬t read the note, can╬t parse the meaning.

The foil pieces stand at the end of a long string of investigations into what might be termed a topology of the self, a precise investigation of that core of identity which is retained despite the deformations of circumstance; but also a study of the nature of the boundaries that separate self from world. In the Torso pieces, something within writhes and coils, fighting to escape; we might be looking at the worms eating the mortal flesh, or the serpent within. In the Tanks, light seems entrapped, and it, too, races from edge to edge seeking escape. Light passes through some installations or works require light in order exhibit their ability to transform (Desert, 1984, or Bone Ash, 1990).

When Skomski turned to monumental and public art, these same qualities remained or returned, though in different form, form more appropriate to the discourse of the public monument. A column piece installed in 1993 might seem at first to be about the collapse of art history and of the monumental aims of public art: Impermanent Column it was called, and it seemed, simultaneously, to be a description in stop-motion of the snapping and toppling of a single generic neoClassical column, and the time-lapse re-casting of that column. But it was also about the tension between what one knew with one set of senses, and knew with another made of cast concrete, it was massive and it invited (and still does) that those who come upon it clamber around on it, yet it seemed to be in the process of rising from defeat to reincarnation, to be simultaneously felled by physical laws, and defiant of them. Not One But Two, made in 1998, had a double-life: as a recasting in unlikely materials of a re-united monumental tree trunk, reunited but not returned to wholeness, re-embodied but in damaged form; and as a skin, the impression made from the original tree-bark, which was then stretched flat and nailed to the wall like a specimen pinned in a specimen-box; like an animal skin in the process of being tanned or like a figure crucified.

For Skomski, skins, walls, and boundaries most generally, have had a recurrent fascination. The wall-rendering of the tree╬s skin, made from polyurethane rubber, was a particularly dark version; the massive object seemed the sick prize of desecrators who had flayed some magnificence and then abandoned their trophy. That he should move rapidly to the creation of epitheliums of the most utterly inanimate of objects common tools and body-building dumbbells seems at first surprising. But it was a near-perfect obverse of the elephantine, rotting, rubbery hide of Not One But Two: objects of an inert heaviness had disappeared, leaving delicate testimonies to their escape and, if carefully examined, evidence of the violence entailed. In rubber, the freedom of embodiment was mourned, and the loss of spirit with the violence done was implicit; in the foil work, the prisonhood of the body was implicit, and the liberation of escape celebrated. These were pieces, in both cases, about volition, what an old-fashioned philosopher would call will, and the inalienable right of the self to own its own volition, use it as it will about freedom to choose embodiment or to seek transcendence, and about the impossibility of having either of these states given to, or forced upon, that self. In 2001, when the foil pieces were first beginning to accumulate, it appeared that Skomski had come upon an avenue to synthesize his tensions, without denying or neutralizing them.

I have a picture of Thomas Skomski standing by one of the last (or perhaps, more appropriately, most recent) of his aluminum-foil-skin pieces. It is a ladder, but this time the scale of the object has finally defeated the delicacy of the materials and the ladder's cicada-shell has crumpled and bent under its own weight. Next to it stands Skomski, himself oddly bent and crumpled. On one side of the ladder is one of his earlier embodiment pieces, a serpentine spinal column. On the other is what might well be the original from which the ladder was first conceived, partly obscured by a much earlier piece, a mundane wooden chair that was remade at roughly 2x scale. A close look at the finished ladder-piece reveals that the original ladder, hammered and distorted by the force of, not gravity but perhaps rage and violence, may still be present underneath the aluminum. The skin has not been removed and it will not be removed. Skomski╬s strangely lax stance and the odd asymmetry of his physical self seems to echo that ladder skin, body, spirit, seem locked together and never to part: no brash rippling of the physical, no transcendent ripping of the flesh to allow the spirit liberation.

On the lower right of the photograph is stamped, in orange, the camera's reflexive date: Sep 20, 2002, a date that separates the making of the piece (completed more than two years before) and Skomski╬s revelation of its renewed significance, both to his own life and to the life of art as he has fought to articulate it over a long career. For the date stamped on the picture is roughly 16 months after Skomski suffered a devastating stroke, one that left him, for a time, smudged of speech, slow of thought, sensorally deprived, crippled in one arm and one leg, limping, dragging, slurring.

One would talk of the tragedy of this event, this striking-down, rendered into evidence by the photograph, were it not for the actual subject of the picture: the ladder-piece itself. For that work seems, uncannily, to anticipate, to recapitulate, and to respond, to Skomski╬s calamity. Writhingly deprived of its essential symmetry, wobbling, hammered, it is also still standing. It cannot offer itself as a ladder does, as a means of safely rising above. Now transcendence has become a very very risky thing, indeed.

That Skomski had already conceived of a piece about transcendence in the terms of a damaged and dangerous ladder to the finitely higher state (not the infinite: rather, 9'), seems an eerie response to predestination. That the aluminum-foil skin has not been peeled off, with that attendant promise that something essential has disappeared or been called away, leaving only the skin of the mortal, proposes that Skomski was already prepared to face the possibility that body and spirit might not mystically or transcendentally separate, the one rising, the other left behind; that, instead, all human energy, all humanity lay in the impossible yearning and the necessary accommodation.