Rutgers University–Newark Professor Sandy Skoglund is an internationally renowned artist known for her colorful, captivating photography that mines the subconscious while blending the everyday and the surreal. She achieves this by constructing elaborate sets, or tableaux, consisting of brightly colored (sometimes monochromatic) scenes that play with proportions and are often populated by some combination of sculptural animals, live models and commercial markers of Americana and domesticity such as furniture, cars and TVs. When envisioning and composing these sets, Skoglund does so —either figuratively or literally—within the frame of the camera’s lens, then produces vibrant images to startling effect.
Skoglund’s images are epic multimedia works often years in the making, reflecting her varied background in painting, drawing, printmaking, filmmaking and digital media. During her tenure at RU-N, she has taught courses in several of these mediums as well as both traditional and digital photography.
As a leading figure in post-modern image-making—along with practitioners of staged-photography such as Cindy Sherman and David LaChapelle—Skoglund has seen her installations exhibited at museums around the world, her work featured in some of the most prestigious exhibitions and publications on contemporary art, and her images held in numerous museum collections. In January 2019, the Centro Italiano per la Fotografia, in Turin, Italy held a major restrospective show of Skoglund’s work, curated by legendary Italian Curator Germano Celant.
Recently, Silvana Editoriale published a comprehensive, 300-page monograph of Skoglund’s work edited by Celant, which sets her personal journey within the context of both world and art history. The book includes Skoglund’s earliest photography of the mid-’70s up to her most recent body of work, “Winter.”
From January 9 to March 7, 2020, Skoglund’s latest installation, “Winter” will be on view at the Ryan Lee Gallery in New York City. Ten years in the making, “Winter,” is a multifaceted project that includes sculpture, installation and photography. Portions of Skoglund’s immersive tableau will be on view in the gallery, along with its final photographic iteration.
We caught up with Skoglund recently to talk about the monograph, her work and her teaching.
How does it feel to see this career-retrospective in print?
It feels satisfying to have participated so thoroughly with people so interested in creating this book in as honest and straightforward and legitimately scholarly a way as possible. The level of detail is phenomenal. It also allows me the space to move forward.
You were a conceptual artist in the early 1970s, correct?
Yes. I happened to be doing drawings while taking pictures of a mobile-home interior in upstate New York. There were these illusions of luxury represented by the interior walls, bathroom and other features built into the mobile home. And it struck me there was something meaningful about American culture whereby the most luxurious thing becomes accessible to everybody through these illusions of marble and wood all produced photographically on plastic. Everything was now available to everyone rather than to an exclusive few. The camera more than drawing captured this with its transparent eye. I started with small and medium-format cameras and then progressed to a large-format 8 x 10. The increased photographic detail just carried me away.
How do your ideas generally emerge?
My ideas come as feelings through the back door. They’re coming in all the time. I don’t have actual dreams about my work. They come through during the day in a vague sense, and then there’s a kind of tinkering over the long-term. A thought will surface more frequently, and then I gain more faith and commitment to that idea and turn it into sketches and words.
A thought will surface more frequently, and then I gain more faith and commitment to that idea and turn it into sketches and words.
And your elaborate sets and process, tell us about those.
It’s multimedia from my point of view, involving sculpture, found objects and altered objects. Every piece has a complexity to it. My latest piece, “Winter,” includes four digital sculptures. To do that piece, it took 10 years to teach myself 3D sculpture and produce it. The snowflakes in this piece are laser-cut aluminum sheets that are powder-coated, then printed on top with UV photo printing. For the background, I used crumpled, painted Foto-foil, which I painted myself with Benjamin Moore house paint after not being able to find right color paper for the piece.
And though I consider my works multimedia, the photography component is important. Without it, the organization of the set would fall apart, because the camera is the organizing element of the image. I don’t make a scene and say, “Oh, I’ll get a camera.” The camera comes down first, and then the setting is seen through the camera. It’s a complex relationship between camera and elements in the set.
You’ve taught a variety of courses while at RU-N and have recently developed a new course, is that right?
Yes. I’ve taught painting, drawing, figure drawing, and intro and advanced photography, and in the last two years started teaching intro to digital photography. The course de-emphasizes the camera and is heavily weighted toward post-production and transforming images in Photoshop. The students work on abstract imagery, and learn about file sizes and the technical aspects of digital photography. My course is a general education course. I have some art and design majors but also students with other majors such as law, business and nursing. I hope my course can enhance their lives.
Thank you for sitting down with us.