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


There are two meanings at play in this title; that the self is strong; and that the self is strong enough to stand autonomous. Perhaps Skomski believed this, once. But Buzzard Luck declares that he doesnĪt, any more. That's why it might be more fruitful to consider Self Sufficient as a precursor to Buzzard Luck or, more accurately, as the description of an earlier stage in an artistic and spiritual quest. Once one might have believed in the elegant transition from body to spirit, the sort of shedding implicit in the dumbbell pieces. Art could produce its elegant essentials, evidence of the path, and tools set along the path. But now we must return to the description of drowning that is to be found as the aphorism at the front of Buzzard Luck. Most of us who have considered suicide in particular and death in general have considered drowning as the most palatable, painless, form. This I suspect would have been SkomskiĪs position a few years ago, when he was first making the cages and the water-jug pieces that are rehearsed in Self Sufficient. In those pieces, water was an essential part of the body, and of that which lay outside the body, of what we might for want of a more apt phrase, call nature. Skomski was a canoer of wilderness areas, and his water-jug pieces suggested both the containment of nature, and the metaphor for human embodiment: a skin enclosing water. What would death by drowning be, then, but release of water, leaving what? The discarded shell of the self?

But that's not what the aphorism tells us about drowning what the essay says, and the installation recapitulates, explores, and rarefies. Drowning is utterly painful. The body resists with all its powers, but so does the self. The body then cheats itself into its own death, while the mind watches, aghast but powerless to control the body. The self exits itself not in satori but in the most horrid form of disbelieving rage and self-hatred. What is left afterwards is SkomskiĪs Inferno; Charon didnĪt guide him down the Styx, wisdom pouring from his lips. The balanced life floats from us; the cheap, Home Depot framework reveals itself; PlatoĪs Cave returns with shocking immediacy; and the promise of the self's infinite, narcissistic reproduction turns into the repellent attraction to pain, a siren call to disembowel ourselves. Not disembodiment as transcendence; disembodiment as dismemberment.

It's difficult to see this sequential reading of the installations as hopeful, but itĪs necessary to do so. Just as Skomski used to embody the most elegant of conceptions in the deliberately rough vernacular of physicality, so now he proposes that we pass from pain to acceptance. One might look at Buzzard Luck as a mature reinterpretation of Skomski=s life-long investigation of the process by which spirit and body are wedded, and then part ways. Transcendence, alchemical transmutation: these may still be the paths of the human spirit, but the transition isnĪt effortless or joyous. It is marked by reluctance rising to resistance and then to rebellion and rejection, spirit is ripped from body, and knows not where it goes: to some perfect, lightstruck state, or to the wandering disoriented lostness of the cave.

Or one can read the pairing of Self Sufficient and Buzzard Luck as a more complex and mature recasting of the longest obsession of SkomskiĪs career, between embodiment and transcendence. But in this case, it is almost compulsory to consider these two pieces in a sequence: from elegant transmutation to painful but necessary embodiment. The desire to live, in this flesh, returns in this understanding, and it brings to mind the pairing inherent in Not One But Two: in the monumental public sculpture, a sort of immortality has been endowed by the artist upon the tree, but at the cost of transformation from organicism to inert and unyielding concrete. Meanwhile the making of the skin has turned bark into something more alive, even in death: flesh, not wood. Buzzard Luck rejects the illusions about death as ease, as liberation, and as transcendence. It returns us to the line by Dylan Thomas in the poem about his father: rage, rage against the dying of the light.

But of course Skomski is too smart, and too committed to the work the viewer must and can do, to resolve the Rooms in this way. He leaves them balanced: in one sequence, a description of the horrors of mere fleshly life and the pain of its inevitable end, followed by a series of descriptions of the evidence of transformation and transcendence; in the other, a sardonic undercutting of the hyperbole of the spiritualist and a stubborn clinging to limping, grasping, chained and bloody resistance to anything but this immediacy we know from waking to sleeping and beyond.

A few months ago, Thomas Skomski gave me a very small gift. He knows I am a serious bicycle racer, and the piece is appropriately constructed from the race-quality tube of a bicycle tire. He made it by cutting the closed circle of the tube, and removing the valve. Then he pulled it onto a ring-sizing column, and rolled the entire tube onto itself.

The result is at first simply ingratiating. A dense black circle about an inch across, it is the sort of object you put in your pocket and rub now and then for the satisfaction afforded by its resistance and its reaction to your applied force. It can be held between thumb and finger lengthwise and squeezed into the smallest beginnings of an hourglass, or it can be held width-wise and squeezed to a hint of an oval.

But doing this latter exercise causes the center to expand and tempt the finger to enter it. It's a sudden salacious event, and if the piece is in your pocket, you immediately take it out and look at it all over again. This time the resemblance to a bodily orifice is instantly evident, but at the same time, the purely abstract richness of the object, albeit in a miniature that calls for a magnifying glass, is also revealed. The taking of outside inward, or the eruption of the inside until it becomes the outer surface, is doubled up when you turn the piece over. At some point, the paradox of the piece's construction comes into play; you don=t have to know how it was made to pretty quickly figure out how it's constitutedB that it's a rolled-up tube is a certainty that comes with the sort of definitiveness of a geometry proof played out in your head. Yet the explanation seems simultaneously impossible. One can=t in fact do what had to be done; indeed, the object can=t be composed of itself; it must have always been as it is. At this moment there is a real temptation to destroy the piece in order to discover its previous state. If you could do this, you would be left with a flaccid three-foot length of latex tubing. The act of the piece's making transformed it utterly, took its finitude and its deadness, and endowed it with a certainty of the infinite and a compressed mortal energy against which youĪve been testing yourself, surreptitiously, in your pocket, for hours, days, perhaps weeks. ItĪs an obdurate little piece, as raw as a practical joke and as tender as the remembrance of a butterfly kiss from your daughter long after she's gone. ItĪs called Unintended Object. Densely packed within its transportable physicality are all the traces of SkomskiĪs career, including the devastation of his stroke and the long halting, still-unfinished path of his reconstruction of a self, a life, and a path, from the remains. It has the crass humor of Horses, and the tactile complexity of the tree-skin. It is simultaneously mute and eloquent, homely and gorgeous. That it is so small seems not a diminishment, but an intensification, of the themes and tensions instantiated in the Rooms. It, too, clings stubbornly to mortality and hums, a little crazily, of apotheosis.

Peter Hales
Chicago, Illinois
December 10, 2003