VINCENT SKELTIS: NOWHERE BUT UP; 31 GRAND - BROOKLYN, NEW YORK

 

Vincent Skeltis, CALIFORNIA, 2004, mixed media, flag, sweatshirt, embroidery thread, wood

 

When Vincent Skeltis discusses his art he occasionally points at correlating tattoos that look like camouflage covering his arms. Each tattoo connected to an artwork has specific meaning in a larger narrative that expresses the artist's own sense of himself and being in the world. For Skeltis Nowhere But Up, an exhibition of photography, collage, and assemblage, is a watershed that encapsulates the story of his life. At one point, Skeltis claimed this solo debut to be more personal than any contemporary exhibition of recent past. While he did eventually back off from this overstatement, upon entering the gallery you are accosted by uncomfortably revealing work.


Once inside 31 Grand, the first of many confronting images, the collage As Luck would Have It (I Turned Out OK), combines a head-shot of Vincent Skeltis Sr, entitled Dad 8 Months Before, surrounded by frenzied images of id-cards from numerous states, a relative's death certificate, and lurid Polaroids with various women taken by the father decades ago. Ostensibly connecting promiscuity and death, As Luck would Have It (I Turned Out OK) also functions as an autopsy of sorts, on a found person previously missing. Such forensic work turned out to be doubly disturbing for the artist, who found that he knew aspects of his father in advance: through the kind of company he kept, the drugs he took, right down the brand of cigarettes both he and his father smoked. Nowhere But Up inadvertently reconstructs a vitiated form of manhood that Vincent Skeltis Jr sees in himself, intimates through his art, and hopes to relinquish in the process of exhibition. Thus there is something of the uncanny materializing thorough out the exhibition. While travailing to expose a man he never knew well enough, often he confuses the identities of the two Vincent Skiltises in order to cope with the blurred pasts of both men.


At the opening, I recognized the artist immediately. He bore an unmistakable resemblance to the photos of younger Vicent Skeltis Sr, who died a shortly after meeting his son. Vincent Skeltis Jr is a portraitist by trade, with experience that includes having spent two years as a photo assistant to David Lachepelle. His commercial past did not match the artwork on display in that the artist isolates a remote economy of signs all his own through the divergent portraits, Polaroid collages, Bible pasted walls, neon, framed embroidery, and hanging assemblage. And through these mediums Skeltis gives voice to innumerable unsaid words (some of which are now tattooed on his body). That is, he tells a story missing from his life that he figured could only be pieced together through his art. Curious how, as a photographer, he came to conceive the show in such multimedia terms, Skeltis deflected every art-process question I had with an anecdote about meeting his father or someone else in Southern California.

 

Vincent Skeltis, DAD, NOVEMBER, 2002, 2002, c-print


As the exhibition's narrative takes on biographical coherence, subject by subject, each portrait functions to frame a character in a cast that Skeltis scripted to tell his tale. Portraits of his father's fellow community members create a sense of progression that seems at once chronological and simultaneous in exhibition form. Photos shot with unfiltered confidence connect the placid and surly looking characters that were Vincent Sr's friends and neighbors. Southern Californian harpies, vixens, mothers, crones and faded warriors confront the viewer and foreground a landscape which camouflages the artist, who is a hidden but felt subject within each frame. Less removed or abstract than the multimedia work, the portraits reflect back upon the photographer by standing-in for a possible past that never was, that never can be, yet is told through those that knew the deceased. Once the pretext for the artwork is known, you feel the artist trying to encapsulate an entire photo-album full of childhood pictures in each of the large-scale photographs before you. The extrusive presence of each photographed individual compensates for the void that each picture-especially those of Vincent Skeltis Sr-represents.


Compelling as each person is, the portraits become exasperating: not because they are hard to look at, but because each is already over-determined by their place in the artist's life. Resembling street photography at points, the photos are nonetheless grounded in relationships with the artist that leave little room for interpretation by the viewer (precisely because they are meant to document a journey). If a needed aesthetic distance is lacking in the photographs specific to the ambient community, the assemblage resolves the problem by using more discrete materials.


Formally uncomplicated, the familial reflections present in the straight photographs serve to ground the viewer in the eulogistic ambition behind the project. What really heightens the exhibition, bringing Nowhere But Up beyond well-executed, firmly anchored photographs, are the formal directions taken in other media. The hanging assemblages still work as eulogy, but also diversify the media, delivering referents of a less personal and therefore more uncontrollable nature. California is an example of works that pull the audience into more vague circumstantial socio-political themes of place and being. Here, Old Glory joins a blue thread embroidered gun positioned upside-down beneath the sunny golden letters of California. Between the flag and the thick bands of sewn graphics lays a flattened sweatshirt seen worn by Vincent Sr in the photo, Dad November 2002. By sensationalizing the kitschy artifacts of a larger-than-life (father) figure in assemblage combinations, the overarching subject of death is given a lighthearted sense of incongruity accomplished ultimately in the iconic. Through incongruity pieces like California draw Skeltis's work into historical dialogue with the application of media less traditional than photography. Employing a gendered craft the artist compresses reflections on manhood, statehood, and the metaphysics of coping with loss into a quilt-like object.


Giving universal themes embodiment in sculpted forms reconnects the audience to the portraits. Utilitarian objects like a pool cue or a loaded gun contrast knick-knacks of Elvis of Jesus Christ in heavy steel box frames. These kinds of contrasts magnify the underlying similarity where the selected objects become unified by an essence memory each now represents. Nowhere But Up lingers on the way forms change after death.


This concentration garners the urgency of the ensemble: Skeltis distills interpersonal intensity in photographic portraits that the tactility of the assemblage then maintains in the permanence of objectivity. In Nowhere But Up, the eulogy eventually contemplates monumentality. Brought face to face with the death of his father, broader themes emerge about the materiality of (quite specifically American) life when contrasted to mortality. This peculiar exhibition-photographically straight forward and sculpturally daring-evolves from an aesthetically conceived confession to an honest relationship with materials-materials collected from a former life which obviously serve at every point to bring the artist as close as possible into a phenomenological relationship with death itself.

Matthew R Schum

Brooklyn, New York 2005