Thomas Skomski:
Terror and Transcendence

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

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This, then, leads us back to the Rooms With A View of 2003. Now we might stand in the corridor between the two installations: above us is the artist's name, in gallery press-type, as if it were a description of the schizoid nature of the artist's vocation. To one side is the elegance of Self-Sufficient, in which each surface, each material, throws off transubstantiated resonances: multiple reflections, multiple selves, prismatic rainbows, moire patterns: transmutation as transcendence. To the other is the marked disintegration of Buzzard Luck, with its chains and shards of mirror, its disheveled residues and its dark reiteration of Plato's Cave: transubstantiation as an unwilling death, horrid and inescapable.

For Skomski, these arenĪt, I think, balanced halves of a unitary whole: aspects of the artist's process, say, or opposed states of the soul. If they were, most anyone would choose Self-Sufficient over Buzzard Luck in a heartbeat. Who wouldnĪt admire the cool formalism of the moire effects rendered in the punched metal plate that surrounds the three water bottles in the piece once titled Man Juice? Who wouldnĪt pick the Bridgit Riley- turned-to-linoleum flooring, and the replicated self mirrored so gorgeously, transformed so subtly by the light refracted through moving water, of Selfsuffice over the terrifying shards of self, inviting suicide, found in the final portion of Buzzard Luck?

But I think we should see these two as stages. Self Sufficient returned us to Skomski's earlier, more elegant, formally cool, spiritualistically secure work, in which embodiment led ideally to a shedding of embodiment, leaving only the visible disembodied, expressed most often as light. These were wonderful pieces at their best: cages with nothing in them but light; formations of elegant metal or wood that transmuted and gave materiality of a sort to the invisible. They were zen-like reeactments of the process found in the stained-glass of certain Gothic cathedrals, in which, as their theorist and theologian, the Abbot Suger wrote, the transformation of light reenacted the transformation of spirit to body that is the basis of the Christian dogma.

One might think of the dumb-bell pieces as similar. They, too, convey by their outlines a palpable presence that has absented itself: mass, weight, physicality. What we have left are the delicate residues of these objects.

They bring to mind other residues of transition: the shells of cicadas and locusts; the skins of snakes. These are shed as the living thing within has outgrown them. The dumbbell residues also bring to mind the piece that hung for some time in Skomski's studio: that imprint of a giant tree-trunk that served as the intermediary mold for a large public sculpture, Not One Not Two, done in 1998, which we=ve looked at already. (But we're not done with it, just as we=re not done with the foil skin-pieces. They're too strong, ambitious, resonant, and successful to set aside.) The full piece, remember, was a cast-concrete trompe-l=ouil reconstruction of the body of a murdered magnificence. Actually, the original stump had been cut in halfB Skomski had doubled the half-trunk to salvage something. It was an oblique refutation of Plato's attack on the arts: Plato had referred to the representation of the visual artist as Aan imitation of an imitation@ of the divine perfection of the forms found in heaven. Skomski's piece described the artist as something more and something less: as a craftsman seeking to undo desecration, making a rough reminder of what had once been.

The tree-skin piece, however, was something else entirely, and for that reason it bedeviled Skomski: he knew it was important, but he couldnĪt figure out what to do with it. Perhaps he didnĪt even know what it meant. IĪm not sure I do, either, except in the retrospect afforded by seeing the dumbbell pieces and Buzzard Luck. The skin of that tree with its almost grotesque tactility presages the residues that comprise the dumbbell pieces, just as it anticipates the coal-black faux stone in the cave (again, that reference to Plato!) at the heart of Buzzard Luck.

All of these pieces are tours-de-force of craft set to a larger endB works of art, in other words. IĪve already made a case for the consummate appropriateness of the rubber casting of the tree trunk, of the way it hung, prisoner of gravity, like an elephant-skin offered for sale in a bazaar. First confrontation with this piece was for me a shattering experience, a remarkable work of mourning, a manifesto of extraordinary complexity, binding emotional and intellectual revelation, demanding but in no way strident. It remains one of the works of art that I carry inside myself, one of a small number of pieces that rise, unbidden, from memory into reenactment.

The same ambition of purpose and skill of execution are present in the dumbbell and tool tracings, and with an equivalent virtuosic ease. Like the tree-skin, these seem not to have come from an artist's hand at all. The artist, the ego of the maker, has been erasedB or perhaps it might more accurately be said that it has dissipated along with the heavy inert material around which the aluminum foil was once wrapped, rubbed, teased, pressed, flattened, worked, until it had somehow taken on something from its mold and thereby freed the agents of its makingB the mold, the artist's egoB to fly upward, liberated.

This seems in the writing of it too heavy-handed an interpretation. Skomski is right to be suspicious of words, to recognize that they can=t do the sort of work that his visual icons bear with ease. The pieces are like chapters from the Lives of the Saints.

But the objects from which Skomski has struck his aluminum-foil tracings arenĪt living things. They are dumbbells. There is much to be said about this choice. These are, after all, the dumbest of objects: they are pig-iron with no function other than the demonstration of weight and the development of resistance. Their utility isnĪt their own: they exist to strengthen their user they serve someone, rather than themselves. There is something in their name, as well; Skomski loves names and lavishes time and attention on them, and often they appear as puns or slips of tongue. Dumb bells: stupid, heavy, silent or silenced. Bells that have chosen silence or perhaps have had silence imposed upon them. Yet they have also transcended their silence and weight. They have flown, leaving only their shells.

Something more appends to this matter of name, skin and object. What Skomski has left us isnĪt in fact the shell, but an imprint (as was the tree-skin piece). He has made this thing, and it is not simply the residue of the object but the result of the work of an artist. Like so many of his pieces, it is simultaneously homespun, vernacular, and utterly elegant. It is the triumphant final extension of the cages; this time, the physical hasnĪt simply transformed, alchemized from heavy dross to floating light it has gone away entirely.

So why, then, did Skomski scribble that note declaring the dumb-bell pieces to be one of his preliminary studies@ for BuzzardĪs Luck? Why not see them as sketches for Self Sufficient? This returns us to the larger question of the pairing of these two. In one interpretation the two installations are like the balanced weights at either end of a dumbbell, with SkomskiĪs name floating in press-type in the middle. They are, in this reading, balanced equivalents, opposite ends of the artistĪs work and here I donĪt mean Skomski, but the artist more broadly, for the question of the artist's role is an essential theme of SkomskiĪs work from the earliest pieces to the last ones. The artist offers us the results of his own quest, the evidence of transcendence. Actually, even at this extreme SkomskiĪs not so full of hubris, for himself or for the artist as cultural shaman. In fact, he once referred to the failed (but popular, well-received, desired) pieces from this end of his spectrum as shamanick-schtick. No, these pieces arenĪt supposed to be self-congratulatory icons of the artist's superior spiritual quest, but rather tools in the quest that we all must make, in the struggle to understand the mystery of our temporary embodiment. That's why the foil pieces, and the dark pain of Buzzard Luck donĪt seem for a moment autobiographical. Instead they seem to come into existence only with the presence of a viewer, and the more attentive, open, discriminating, disciplined and patient the viewer, the more substantial become the works themselves.

In their physicality, the dumbbell pieces should (it would seem) be comfortably ensconsed (or, more accurately, vitrined, as they=re too delicate too touch and too irresistible not to be touched) within the older body of work that's recapitulated in the elegantly minimalist side of the RoomsB that is, within the realm of the self sufficient. Yet there's something wrong here; the fact that Skomski named this installation Self Sufficient seems ironic, even mordant. In the mirror piece, Self Army, we see ourselves reproduced sixteen times, in a closed circle of repetitions. In the other two, the elevation of the stoically functional water jug upon a pedestal, the enclosure of the three jugs in punctured steel: in what way are we to read these as arguments that the self is sufficient?