New York

Sandy Skoglund

Leo Castelli

With Maybe Babies, her latest photograph and installation, Sandy Skoglund moves another rung up the evolutionary ladder from her earlier Revenge of the Goldfish and Radioactive Cats, both 1981. In each of the three Skoglund has presented both a large Cibachrome photograph and the constructed environment on which it is based; all have featured drab domestic settings (a bedroom in . . . Goldfish, a kitchen in . . . Cats, an outside corner of a house in . . . Babies) teeming with remarkably detailed, luridly colored epoxy casts of the title creatures. Skoglund’s settings are like the mad hallucinations of a drunk with a bad case of the DTs.

In her new piece Skoglund’s babies, thirty or so in number, crawl, toddle, or lie strewn across a black sand landscape outside a black clapboard house. Some of the babies clamber up the sides of the house, while others float in midair—hung, in the installation, from the walls and ceiling of the gallery. All are abnormally large—about twice life size—and painted in a dark rainbow of bilious, bruiselike purples and blues. Interspersed among these ominous infants are bizarrely twisted antennae painted in bands of fluorescent green and black. A yellow light glows faintly from a window in the black house; in the photograph a middle-aged man stands at this window, gazing with baleful glumness at the bald, otherworldly babies outside. The basic elements of a classic horror film—Night of the Living Dead, say—are all there: the threatening monsters from the Id mindlessly swarming Out There, just beyond the lamp-lit security of a middle-class home.

But the archetypal terror of Skoglund’s image has, of course, a more topical reference: the imagined holocaust of a nuclear war. The kitschy goldfish and cats she used in her earlier pieces looked as if they’d just come off the shelf of some Tiajuana junkshop, and so seemed as much as anything to express a fascinated disgust with these shoddy sentimental geegaws. The babies are as dumb, as intuitive and willfully irrational, as the earlier creatures, and thus can be seen as embodying a sort of essential life force. But the references to tourist tackiness are gone, and the focus is more squarely on perhaps the greatest horror of nuclear war: the destruction not just of ourselves, but, as Jonathan Schell has pointed out, of all successive generations, of the future. The threat of nuclear war is so immediate that it has generated its chroniclers before the actual conflict, and has already sparked many attempts by artists to imagine its nightmarish consequences. Skoglund’s piece reminded me particularly strongly of Robert Morris’ recent work, both his skeleton angels of a couple of years ago and the midden heaps of bones and body parts shown earlier this season. Some of Skoglund’s babies are half-buried in the black sand, frozen in mid-gesture, like the cindered corpses at Pompeii.

Including the installation here seemed a necessary concession to “exhibition values”—few dealers (or artists) would trust a single photograph to hold viewers’ attention in an otherwise empty gallery. But it was really in the photograph that Skoglund’s point was made. The somber-faced man gazing out the window is the central character in this drama. The installation, on the other hand, is like a movie set without the actors. Seeing its edges, and noticing the details of its construction (babies were hung from the walls and ceiling by wires and eyelets screwed into their backs), emphasized the artifice of the image, while the photograph, inherently illusionistic, hid these seams—with the edges of the frame replacing those of the set, for example.

Skoglund uses the same set of devices here as in her two previous works; they’re so distinctive and effective that the repetition might make them seem too similar, as if she’d gotten stuck on a successful formula. But by changing the central element to babies, whose connotations are much more immediate, complex, and emotional than those of her earlier subjects, she injects a pointed meaning into the work.

Charles Hagen