Reality Bites: Approaches to Representation in American Sculpture

at the Chicago Cultural Center, through June 14

Thomas Skomski: Walking on the Bottom of the Ocean

at Northern Illinois University Art Gallery, through June 6

By Fred Camper

Never mind the show’s silly title or the two-page handout asserting that the works in this exhibit are “reality-based” and reexamine art’s “relevance to society, history, and current events”–a description that hardly accounts for the superb abstractions by Donald Judd and Thomas Skomski. “Reality Bites,” 27 works by 12 artists at the Chicago Cultural Center, is a fine survey of sculpture from the last three decades, falling into two different categories.

The majority of pieces take their shapes and details from such mass-manufactured objects as chairs, baseballs, candles. Offering witty, sometimes ironic commentaries on our culture, this work is often powerful and original despite its borrowed forms. It also reminds us that many current artists have given up on the earlier modernist project of creating “things not seen before,” in the words of filmmaker Stan Brakhage.

Charles Ray, for example, in Male Mannequin (1990) gives us an impossibly smooth body. Part of the humor of this actual mannequin, apparently from the 50s, is that by present standards it’s so blandly “perfect”: its muscles are ill defined, the face is hopelessly generic, the nipples are merely smooth little lumps. The original included no sign of hair, not even a follicle, except on the eyebrows and the top of the head–but Ray has attached a large clump of pubic hair and a realistic casting of his own genitals, whose irregular folds, veins, and coloration throw the rest of the featureless body into sharp relief: the mannequin’s skin is monochromatic, for example. Ray’s joke reminds us of how imperfect, how disturbingly heterogeneous, an actual body is, and of the sexuality that the bland 50s sought to efface. Jo Hormuth takes on another icon in Baseballs (1998), consisting of nine balls realistically sewn but covered with elephant skin, whose dark color and wrinkled texture is both humorous and creepy. I was reminded of the theory that soccer’s ancient prototypes were played with human skulls.

Joe Scanlan in Bathroom Floor (1991) plays another joke on the viewer. He’s mounted a piece of tiled flooring on a raised platform, and I had to chuckle as I found myself seeking artistic intentionality in its diamondlike black-and-white pattern and the opening in the tiles for a toilet. The joke is not only on the viewer, perhaps, but on bad abstract art, lacking even the precise elegance of bathroom floors. Scanlan links art and life by mounting a piece of his home in the gallery and reminds us of the potential for creative perception even in everyday environments.

Some of the creepiest objects and strongest commentary come from Robert Gober. An untitled 1988 work presents a child’s crib collapsed into an oblique parallelogram. Instead of providing the usual space for play and rest, this crib is cramped and entrapping. Worse, it seems it could collapse further: childhood discipline seems a dangerous prison. Gober’s Prison Window (1992) at first seems similarly imprisoning: high up on a freestanding wall is an opening with three bars–but through it can be seen a gently colored sky. An accident of this installation places the wall before an actual window looking out on an eye-filling, deadly bland skyscraper alternating metal and glass stripes. By comparison with this monolith, the view through Gober’s window is almost as romantic as a Caspar David Friedrich mountain view. Similarly, there are doubtless aspects of children’s existence today far more horrible than a cramped crib. Rather than being simply ironic, Gober’s pieces “improve” on mass-culture items, as Ray does with the genitals on his mannequin and Hormuth with her elephant-skin baseballs.

Perhaps the show’s weirdest work is an untitled 1990 Gober: a realistic-looking leg clad in shoes, socks, and pants emerging from the wall at floor level. The shoes and pants are downscale and worn; the leg itself is pale, as if the person were old–or dead. Most striking is the body hair visible just under the pants, which suggests even more forcefully that there’s an actual person in the wall. Reconfiguring the gallery space as a botched mausoleum, this piece interjects worn clothing and a hairy leg into a place that’s traditionally been the home of idealized views, whether old master portraits of royalty or Mondrian’s abstractions.

The mess of current culture is most strongly present in Hans Haacke’s Helmsboro Country (1990), presenting a dense network of ironies. A giant flip-top box of “Helmsboro” cigarettes is open to reveal huge cigs, some spilling out. On the sides of the box are quotes from Senator Jesse Helms, excoriating the way that government support for the arts has made “the homosexual pornography” of Robert Mapplethorpe acceptable, and from an executive of Philip Morris–the maker of Marlboros–to the effect that this huge corporate sponsor supports the arts out of self-interest. Ironically Philip Morris also supports Helms, a senator from tobacco country who looks after tobacco interests. The cigarettes themselves are rolled in oversize replicas of a Bill of Rights draft, reminding us that Philip Morris celebrated the bicentennial of the Bill of Rights by mailing anyone who requested it a free copy; cynics said that the company merely hoped to remind the public of the protection the First Amendment supposedly affords cigarette advertising.

My problem with Haacke’s piece–which is at once elegant, funny, and intelligent–is that he doesn’t go far enough, merely highlighting contradictions without following them to their logical conclusions, making an easy, thoughtless attack. Suppose, for example, that Philip Morris does support the arts or the First Amendment for the “wrong” reasons; does that make the support itself wrong? The First Amendment is needed to protect unpopular, even reprehensible views. And if artists had consistently rejected funding from tainted sources, most of Western art–supported by a once murderous church as well as rampaging imperial conquerors–would simply not have been made.

Haacke’s piece led me to thoughts beyond the realm of the aesthetic–as do many of the show’s best works. Undercutting the idea that traditional icons are somehow “higher” than the real, they add real, often messy elements: body hair, elephant skin, a hole cut into an abstract pattern for a toilet. In short, this work argues against the idealized abstractions of earlier artists, seeking to plunge us back into the specifics of cultural contradictions and the unidealized body.

Donald Judd’s untitled 1991 piece is a beast from another era, representing the other, now less popular category: more abstract sculpture. And to my eyes, its contrast with the other works makes it all the more powerful. Five huge metal boxes, open on their opposing sides, are arrayed in a line on the gallery floor. The open sides are “supported” by three columns in three different designs appearing in different combinations in each box. The boxes are large, around five feet high, but too short for most people to enter: they suggest miniature rooms, semienclosed spaces, while the columns hint at classical open-air temples. We’re encouraged to walk around the piece more than once, to see which kinds of columns are used in each box. The boxes’ arrangement in a line suggests lateral movement, while the columns suggest vertical motion, as if the boxes were growing out of the floor. Though the piece is mostly rectilinear, it has the dynamic feeling of a live creature or row of creatures. Giving the lie to the idea that geometrical abstraction is reductive, this piece allows for a greater variety of references than Helmsboro Country. Mostly, however, it has a splendid raw power.

Thomas Skomski’s works are, if anything, even further from Haacke’s social content than Judd’s piece. Skomski’s Door (1997), part of “Reality Bites,” is not much more than an ordinary wooden door–perhaps the most banal of the objects in the show. He covers it with graphite, however, giving the grain a heavy metallic look and a nonfunctional weight, then contradicts that feeling by mounting the piece a few inches from the wall, apparently free-floating, where it can be rotated by the viewer.

Skomski’s door is a symbol both for doors in general and for the opposites of opening/transformation and barrier/enclosure. But by making it turn rather than open, Skomski deflects attention from its original function; by replacing the usual kind of pivot–hinges–with an unusual and more symmetrical one, he conflates the opposite functions of a door. Never strictly “closed” or “open,” a rotating door suggests that these conventionally opposed states are really not so different.

Skomski, an Illinois native born in 1948 and currently living in Evanston, acknowledges the effect of the 60s on his development, mentioning the influence of both Zen Buddhism and hallucinogenic drugs. But if his work seeks unities rather than differences, he achieves them with an articulate precision. Popeye–one of two works in his show at the Northern Illinois University Art Gallery–is a large metal cage, each of its four sides consisting of two layers of rusty latticed metal. At the center of the cage, heavy chains tied to the upper and lower edges converge within a hollow cylinder. This seems a fearsome prison, its chains taut and binding, straining against the armlike cylinder as if ready to break it open with the suddenness of a cartoon character’s biceps expanding. Just as important, however, are the moire patterns the lattices create and the multiple shadows they cast on the floor outside, contrasting the physicality of the metal with the insubstantiality of light. This cage might be a sanctuary as well as a trap, combining confinement with protection.

Even better is the moody, elusive larger piece. In the darkened gallery, four walls of fine nylon mesh make a room for two metal frames supporting shapes also made of nylon mesh–a large cube and an elongated half cylinder. Among other eccentric details is a gnarly root suspended from a pole. Above each of the two structures a light shines through a tank filled with water kept moving by small motors. Rippling patterns of very pale light cross the floor and the mesh structures, blending with them. It’s hard to separate the light from the mesh, or even to know whether the reflected, glowing light one sees is coming from the surface of the mesh objects or from their inside faces.

Looking at Helmsboro Country and many of the other referential pieces in “Reality Bites” provokes the same kind of uncomfortable cultural analysis involved in voting. Skomski’s untitled installation reminded me that the purity of abstract work isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Avoiding commentary on our object-laden world, his piece in essence destroys the very idea of an object. These mesh structures don’t seem “things” because we can’t see them separately from the light that illuminates them. This in turn recalls a more fundamental truth, one the object fetishism of our consumer culture denies: everything we see is a result of the interaction of our brain with light–material objects, light, and consciousness itself are inseparable elements in a single dance.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Sculpture by Robert Grober; “Popeye” by Thomas Skomski.