New York

Sandy Skoglund

In two simultaneous exhibitions, Sandy Skoglund showed an installation (at Sharpe Gallery) and a group of related photographs and photo-derived paintings (at Castelli Uptown). Although both exhibitions were based on a theme of abandoned cars, the work in each show was strikingly different. For the installation, Neo Auto, 1987, Skoglund presented a smashed and trashed derelict auto painted a cloying shade of lavender on an acid yellow carpet in the middle of the small gallery. Twining over the wreck were an enormous number of forks, bent and twisted into odd shapes and welded together, which seemed to swallow up the car like an infestation of virulent kudzu. The forks and the gallery walls were both painted the same acid yellow as the carpet. Skoglund had also chopped up photographic closeups of other abandoned cars into shardlike fragments, which she hung all over the walls and ceiling.

The installation extended aspects of Skoglund’s earlier work, especially the theme of everyday objects running amok in ways that can be seen as either laughable or ominous—forks here; goldfish, plaster cats, and coat hangers in earlier pieces. (In another recent work, a window display at the New York clothing store Barneys, Skoglund set up a scene of a room strewn with socks.) The installation was also social commentary, referring directly to the gutted automobile hulks that dot the streets of New York’s Lower East Side, where Skoglund has lived for several years. Finally, the installation was also a backdrop for a series of pseudo-fashion photographs, with models wearing clothes designed by Skoglund that look like Flash Gordon spacesuits. In these photographs (which weren’t on display) the furious irony expressed in the installation and its title is made explicit, as models prance around the glamorized wreck.

Many of the photographs and paintings at Castelli Uptown also use abandoned cars as a central element, but in more narrative scenes. Collaged from fragments of other photographs and then rephotographed, these pictures combine familiar-looking characters in everyday settings: an office worker in a grim, concrete-block office; family members in a kitchen; a young couple on the street; and so on. Skoglund has printed the black-and-white negatives she uses in making these pictures onto color photographic paper, producing images in the photographic primaries (cyan, magenta, and yellow). She also employs this otherworldly palette in the large airbrushed paintings based on similar collages, such as Tools of Expression, 1986, which shows a dentist and his assistant flanking a threatening-looking dental chair.

The scenes in these pictures seem autobiographical, and the people in them look more like family and friends than anonymous social types. In one of the photographs, The Laws of Interior Design, 1986, Skoglund herself appears, dressed in combat fatigues. Certain characterizing details recur from one picture to another: the same camouflage clothing shows up on a man in the painting Search for Signs, 1986, and young women dressed in art-scene retro fashions appear in several of the works. What is most striking about these pictures, though, is the stagelike structure of their compositions. The various people in each picture are arrayed along the edges of the frame, flanking a central, iconic image—a burnt-out car, middle-class kitchen, office interior, or dentist’s office. Some of the figures are just barely in the picture, with the frame cropping out an eye or a section of a face. Moreover, few of the people appear to be engaged with the scene or with each other. Instead they stare upward or downward, their eyes glazed over, or they seem absorbed in their own gestures; in Search for Signs, a woman in a polka-dot dress and opera gloves twists down to reach out of the frame, apparently to adjust one of her high heels. Like the pictures themselves, the scenes are collages of disparate elements. The disjointedness of these scenes, the lack of community among the people in them, matches the absurdity of fashion models posing next to a junked car. That this sort of violent social contrast is a familiar part of everyday life in New York, and in the East Village in particular, is itself a telling comment.

Charles Hagen