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Fantasy environments: the tableau photography of Sandy Skoglund.

Looking Carefully

"The more I do this kind of work, the more it feels like making a film. A film in one frame." Sandy Skoglund's description of her signature technique, tableau photography, provides us with an understanding of the intensity she packs into each photograph. Her photographs are not mere images caught by the camera. Tableau is a theatrical term for a staged scene which the actors do not speak or move. Using this approach, Skoglund designs and fabricates staged environments that are intended to be viewed simultaneously as site installations and as the medium of her photography.

Pushing three-dimensional forms into two-dimensional photographs, Skoglund transforms the content of her sculpted scenes into dream-like images that pique the curiosity of the viewer. When first viewing The Green House, there is a feeling of amusement. An ordinary living room has become overgrowth with a carpet of green straw. A couch lined with throw pillows, end tables cluttered with picture frames and memorabilia, an over-stuffed easy chair and a coffee table strewn with magazines, have all become wrapped in a blanket of green. Within this verdant room is an assortment of more than thirty dogs. Curled up on the couch, stretched out under the coffee table, sitting at attention on the mantel, sniffing and yapping, the canines would appear to be characters from a Disney film. The absurdity of their presence is further pronounced in their coloration which either matches the environment or is contrasted in a flourescent purple. Amidst all this fantasy are two figures seemingly oblivious to the growth and menagerie that surrounds them.

A closer examination of Skoglund's tableau reveals a creation that asks more questions than it answers. Her content, she admits, is not tied to any specific meaning because it would become limiting. "I try to suggest things," she says, "I want to create possibilities of interpretation." What does the title allude to? The Green House or greenhouse might suggest a home that is warm and protective, a place where things can thrive. Yet, the room is artificial and restrictive. Is there a more serious theme? Does greenhouse represent something ecologically out of control due to man's carelessness? Is green a reference to naivete or is there an association with the obsessive need for money to provide security? Individually, the bloodhounds, terriers, and Chihuahuas would be considered man's best friend and guardian. Shown collectively, their purpose and behavior is transformed into a menacing pack. What is it that has caused many of the canines to become alert? Is it a sound, another human being, or something supernatural? Ir is man over beast or the opposite in effect? The third narrative element of Skoglund's drama, the human inhabitants, serve as an emotional link for the viewer. Does the oblivious attitude of the couple represent self-content in their nature-filled environment, or is their suspended activity based on the contemplation of something mysterious and foreboding? Skoglund's insistence that there be no final answers in her work invites ongoing debate about the metaphors she presents.

Planning and constructions of the tableau is a long arduous process for the sculptor/photographer. Each piece she makes - from conception, to assembling props, to installation of the environment in the exhibition space, to the Cibachrome photograph - averages six months of activity. Thrift shops and discount stores provided the venue for many of the objects in the living room of The Green House. The dogs were a creation of the artist. First modeled in clay, then cast in polyester resin, they were finished with a coat of bright green or purple paint. "When I make my animals, I try to make them come alive. I actually think and behave like them," she says. The people who do not appear in the staged environment are actors who Skoglund arranges in the scene for creation of the photograph. Finally, her exaggeration of color, scale, and texture provides the additional elements needed to complete the installation. The 47" x 60" photograph was taken with an 8" x 10" view camera with a tiny aperture setting. The result is a sharply-focused, highly-saturated color montage where the natural and unnatural confront each other.


Using an interior scene, Edward Hopper also presents the viewer of Room in Brooklyn with a parallel universe - it is real and yet it isn't. Like Skoglund's The Green House, Hopper creates a tableau in which the objects become the subject and the subject becomes an object. In this case, the elements of architecture and light serve as the objects that create a feeling of indifference and isolation.

While Skoglund's tableau relies on an overabundance of objects to create a provocative tension between reality and fantasy, Hopper devises an evocative setting sparse in objects. Room in Brooklyn portrays a solitary figure who is as anonymous as the mass of undifferentiated Brooklyn tenements she faces. The interplay of sunlight acts as a dynamic coordinate between the interior and exterior world. Its nature, its color, its source and direction are an integral part of the scene. Is the light a unifying compositional element or is it meant to warm the coldness of an unfeeling city? Does the patch of light on the floor serve to spotlight or isolate the occupation of the room? The reliance by Skoglund on heavily-textured objects receives the opposite attention by Hopper. The carpet, walls, window shades, wood moldings, and brick buildings of the tableau all seem to be made of the same substance. Instead of texture, he entices the viewer to know and feel the environment through its arrangement of strong vertical and horizontal architectural forms. Do the vertical windows provide a view of the frenzy of city life or are they a restrictive enclosure?

In both works, the tableau presents images whose purpose is not clearly revealed. Like an open-ended narrative, each viewer is invited to develop his or her own interpretive story line.

Key Concepts

* In a tableau, figures and objects are arranged in staged scenes. * Information in a tableau may be very literal, while other information may be implied through metaphor or symbol. * Skoglund's tableaux are intended to be viewed both in the media of site installation and photography. * Compositional elements like color line, and texture, have the capacity to express feelings and emotions.


Sandy Skoglund lives in New York City where her studio is located, and is on the teaching staff at the Newark branch of Rutgers University. Born in Boston in 1946, she spent much of her childhood moving around the country until the Skoglunds settled in California near Disney World in the early 60s. This change in environment and culture had a profound effect on Skoglund's later work. Reflecting on it she says, "There is probably a kind of California sensibility in my work in term of color."

Skoglund returned to the east to study art history at Smith College, spending her junior year in Paris at the Sorbonne. It was in Paris that she discovered the power of theatrical images through avant-garde movies. She went on to earn her M.F.A. from the University of Iowa in 1972. While working as an instructor for Hartford Art School from 1973 to 1976, she focused on the creation of conceptual art. Skoglund abandoned this artistic direction in the late 70s because she "couldn't stand the rhetoric any more." Looking for new connections in her art, she was inspired by the commercial image-making that was fast becoming a part of American culture. The idea of reaching an audience through the dialogue of an image led her to tableau photography. Since 1981, her sculpture installations and photographs have enjoyed widespread attention in the world of art.

Suggested Activities


* Read Dr. Suess's Green Eggs and Ham to the children. Talk with them about how color can affect our senses. Using food coloring, turn milk from white to green and let the children sample the mixture. Record their reactions. Using the same discussion strategies, have the children look at and talk about The Green House.

* Introduce the concept of tableau. As a group, have the children create a classroom tableau by rearranging the furniture and objects in the classroom. Create a surprise element like "bookworms" that the children can sculpt as three-dimensional objects. Folded newspaper or construction paper can be pained, collaged, and bent into snake-like forms. Let the children arrange themselves and the sculptured objects in their environment. Capture the tableau, with a photograph. To accompany this activity, have the children develop individual story lines for the class tableau.

* Explain the idea of symbols and hidden meanings. Use common symbols such as the American flag, traffic signs or fast-food restaurants. Older children might use this exercise to generate a list of symbols in their neighborhood. Let each child select a common symbol. With drawing materials, have the children alter their selected symbol to create a new meaning.


These activities are suggested as a series, working towards a group tableau to be photographed.

* Use Skoglund's The Green House to introduce critical thinking skills. Have students make a list of everything in the photograph. Encourage them to analyze the relationship of the objects to the title of the work. See how many different interpretations the work might suggest to the class. Explain Skoglund's philosophical approach to tableau photography and how the actual image is created.

* Teenagers often collect and wear objects that have symbolic and metaphoric meaning. Have your students share some of these items and discuss their role in popular culture. Let the students select a current issue - such as the devastation of the rain forest - around which a metaphorical tableau could be developed.

Select a space in the school or perhaps a storefront window in the community to install the group tableau. Identify the various components of the environment that need to be collected and fabricated. Discuss how the elements of color, texture and light should be approached in the project.

* Explore several techniques for making three-dimensional forms using wood, ceramics or paper construction. Discuss the ways in which these construction techniques might best represent the objects to be formed.

Have teams of students construct the tableau as realistically as possible to the scale of the selected space. With Polariod cameras, have each student photograph the tableau from his or her own selected vantage point. Use this activity for a class discussion about how a tableau can give different message based on the viewer focal point established by the artist.


Levin, G. Edward Hopper: The Art and the

Artist. New York: W. W. Norton and

Company, 1982. Plagens, P. "Into the Fun House."

Newsweek. August 21, 1989, 52-57.

(This is an article about Skoglund and

other leading contemporary photographers.) Richardson, N. "Sandy Skoglund - Wild

at Heart." ARTnews. April, 1991, 115-119. Seuss, Dr. (Theodore Seuss Geisel).

Green Eggs and Ham.

New York: Random House, 1960.

Dr. Elizabeth Cole is Chair, Department of Art, University of Toledo at the Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Davis Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Cole, Elizabeth
Publication:School Arts
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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