Sandy Skoglund, Food Still Lifes @Ryan Lee

JTF (just the facts): A total of 10 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space. All of the works are archival pigment inkjet prints, made in 1978. Each is sized roughly 22×28 and is available in an edition of 25 (with one exception which is available in an edition of 15). (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Sandy Skoglund’s food still lifes from the late 1970s are sneaky. Filled with eye-popping bright colors and formal geometric ordering that would make Wes Anderson proud, at first glance, it’s hard not to be seduced by their cheery playfulness. Skoglund makes smart use of patterns and repetitions, and her witty visual echoes are unabashedly fun, exaggerating the conventions of commercial food photography to the point that knowing ridiculousness is just within sight.

But there’s plenty more going on in her sophisticated pictures than simply matching a circular array of marble cake slices and a marbled paper background, and the historical context here is important. In 1978, America in particular had reached a tipping point with its relationship to food. On one hand, in the previous decade, food had been pushed to its corporate limits, with mechanization and elaborate processing turning it into a convenience good optimized and marketed for maximum consumption. (Skoglund’s image of a perfectly square stack of luncheon meats set against a similarly swirled backdrop hits this point directly – the now sculptural meat has been made perfectly effective for making sandwiches, including sizing it to neatly fit the dimensions of standardized bread.) On the other hand, at that same time, this consumer-driven repackaging of food was in the process of being questioned, with the worrying effects of chemicals, plastics, and other additives starting to be considered. So Skoglund’s seemingly gleeful food still lifes occur at this cultural tipping point, and her pictures tap into that simmering dissonance and anxiety, her joking delivered with an undercurrent of biting sarcasm.

The other context into which these pictures fit is an artistic one. In 1978, the optical and perceptual games of photoconceptualism were in full swing, and Skoglund’s food still lifes undeniably build on those aesthetic trends. There are particular echoes to be found between Skoglund’s images from this series and some of the early pictures by William Wegman and Robert Cumming – Wegman in particular had fun with slices of cotto in 1970, goofing on the dots of pepper, a spotted tabletop, and the warts on his hand. And Cumming’s mind bending images of striped stairways and screens from 1974 investigate the same twists of camera-based seeing that Skoglund explores in three works here, where the flatness of kitchen drawer paper patterns are subtly altered by boxes, walls, and corners, the dense arrays of flowers turned into exercises in illusionary depth and spatial perception. As a group, the photoconceptualists spent lots of brain cycles on the shifting balance between real and artificial, and Skoglund’s works thoughtfully extend that line of photographic thinking.

All of these component ideas come together in a selection of images where Skoglund builds her compositions up into three distinct layers – the drawer paper background, a patterned plate, and the unreal food itself, all interlocked via similarities of pattern and arrangement. Plaids tie together an inviting plate of chocolate striped cookies (perhaps the apocalypse proof Keebler Fudge Stripes), while small yellow dots ripple though tiny flowers and heaping piles of buttery from-a-frozen-bag corn. More complicated dots-within-squares patterns set off a neatly arranged square of green peas, the tour de force coming in a frenetic patchwork composition where carrots and peas are systematically intermingled, the squares of orange and the circles of green marching in perfect order against the busy backdrop. And with each successive amplification of the underlying ideas, Skoglund’s social satire gets more surgical.

The success of these pictures lies in their range – they can function equally well as engaging eye candy and cleverly incisive, conceptually-rich artworks. While Skoglund’s exuberant processed foods are out of step with today’s artisan farm-to-table earnestness, even decades later, these photographs still resonate with deceptive intelligence.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at either $8500 or $10000 each. Skoglund’s prints have been consistently available in the secondary markets over the past decade, with prices ranging from roughly $2000 to $48000.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Nazraeli Press (here). Debossed linen hardback with dust jacket, 11 x 13 inches, 76 pages, with 57 duotone photographs. Includes an essay ... Read on.

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