Kristin Imre's Thoughts
Objects of Personhood
“no object should be treated as disposable”
-Becky Chambers A Psalm for the Wild-Built
At the center of John Skibo’s painting “The Many Headed Hydra,” the bent knee of a stuffed figure leans towards us. Its companion splays out in the other direction. While the pants press against the round firmness of the closer leg, they drape over the other. Hanging folds suggest the thin rail of a frail limb that takes me back to brief moments of calm as I cared for my grandfather.
After he had been cleaned from a meal or re-situated post restroom visit, I would help him lift and adjust the insubstantial weight of his limbs—soft gossamer skin and hard bone. My grandmother would spread a blanket emblazoned with the Lord’s prayer over the heavy frailness of his body. And for a while, there would be calm. A few minutes to talk before discomfort, pain, sleep, or another to-do stirred the quiet. My grandparents would hold hands, telling stories in tandem surrounded by the dear things my grandmother kept just so. In this stillness, for a moment, I could see my grandfather. It seemed. Past the pained body, amongst a life of things, he would be there. And I would think: Are we not these things?
In his show, Nothing is Difficult Forever, Massachusetts based artist John Skibo takes up this question in an array of work from 2016 to the present that blurs boundaries between still life and portrait, object and figure, self and possession. Through generic slippage, these works challenge us to reconsider our objects.
Skibo first began painting from the sculpted models we see here in 2016. What began with the exploration of a duct-taped dress form grew to making an array of pieces from the remains of his carpentry work. The wood cut offs, insulation fragments, and soiled gloves from bathroom and kitchen remodels, deck builds, closet and room expansions became sculpted figures. Skibo crafted wood scraps into multi-faceted heads reminiscent of Cubist portraits and glued together rigid foam scraps to carve heads and hands. To these materials, he added his old clothing, stuffed with the stained filling of long-used and discarded pillows, as well as domestic objects from his and his partner’s home and dumpsters outside worksites.
These sculpted figures began to appear in gestural works such as “Ecstasy” and “Touch” in which Skibo depicts lolling and laying figures in dim interiors. With their spare light and detail, these figures only hint at Skibo’s sculpted models. They draw their affectiveness, instead, from gesture: the tilt of the head in “Ecstasy” towards a stiffly reaching hand spurs the pain and thrill of a too consuming pleasure; the tentative reach of the pointer finger in “Touch” stirs the hope and fear of vulnerability. The power of these works arises from the felt states they evoke. We do not experience them as paintings of objects, but rather of bodies with lived experiences. The sculpted referents retreat into process. They are not the content of the works, but the means of their production.
Yet “Touch” begins to show a shift in technique. While it shares the major hallmarks of these early explorations with the sculpted figures—the muted palette, the thin paint application, the use of gesture and emotion—, it renders the material reality of the models with greater detail. We see the boxy cut of the sculpted head in “Touch,” the round packaged appearance of the torso, and the glove-like quality of the hand. The sculpted items begin to assert themselves. They draw attention to their objecthood, even as they suggest a body.
“The Many Headed Hydra,” “In Memory,” and “Supplication” offer these sculpted elements in even higher detail. A disconnected stuffed glove or pale insulation pink head categorically identify their material reality as objects. Composed as they are of construction scraps, these works conjure our cultural obsession with real estate, renovation, and the drive to replace the new with the more fashionable. Yet Skibo pairs these with the well-used and well-worn—a crocheted blanket passed down from his partner’s great-grandmother, an antique lamp bequeathed from a fellow artist’s studio, the stained stuffing of his and his partner’s discarded pillows. These are intimate objects imbued with the bodies of loved ones. His partner’s great-grandmother’s hands pulled each loop of that blanket. The yarn absorbed her smell and warmed her lap as she worked. The pillows and their stuffing carry nights of rest and unrest over years laying together. This intimacy awakens the intimacy of these remains. Harsh in their newness and waste, Skibo’s work stirs their interiority: the days spent within their living spaces that we obsessively and expensively make and remake. We are caught in the endlessly consuming drive for new. We remake and continue a living past. Our enlivened refuse looks out at us with recognition: Are we not these things?
The arrangement of these intimate objects is the most obvious means by which each slips between still life and figure painting. Even the unstuffed clothing of the prone subject of “In Memory” reads as a body. But the figures in these works do more than recall bodies, they are enlivened.
Much like the gestures of Skibo’s early sculpted model paintings, these paintings evoke flashes of the felt vulnerability of lived bodies. In each, a stuffed pant leg, bent with the knee towards the center of the composition, draws our eye. The cloth tugs and folds away from the high knee cap rounding down around the softness of the knee’s underside. Each leg is thick—the meatiness of thighs press against the stiff cotton of corduroy and khaki. Skibo sets this substantialness against its companion: unstuffed clothing that pools to the floor, flattens to a stick, or hangs on a stiff armature. And yet, against its fleshed companions, these pant legs read not as objects, but limbs frail, thin, different, felt.
In this enlivened state, they push us to see the ways in which we are object. We are material surrounded, supported, and defined by the things of our daily lives. They live with us. They absorb and tell our stories. Even perhaps have lives despite us.
This contrast of the fleshed and unfleshed raises different considerations in “In Memory.” This painting holds a residue of violence: the deep warm red of the carpet, the deflated prone figure so casually pressed beneath the foot of pale pink seated other. The rounded chest and substantial legs of the seated figure—thick with its assumed personhood—highlight the objectification of the prone figure, whose single still fleshed leg seems to be co opted by the body of the other. The violence of this work, quiet and past, is the violence of turning a person into an object. As the painting draws our eye from the hand in the foreground, still puffed with a little life, to the hand in the background, completely flattened, wholly object, we see this violence enacted before us. As the prone figure searches out our gaze, marking our complicity, it asks: Are we not these things?
While this question echoes across the works of Nothing is Difficult Forever, our current moment seems to amplify the urgency of its query. We have long struggled with the material status of our bodies and our lives. We have granted and withheld subjecthood quietly and violently and we do it again. Skibo’s work blurs the boundaries of still life and portrait, object and figure, self and other to get us to consider what might change if we finally understood: Are we not these things?