Looking at Sandy Skoglund’s 1978 photographic series, Food Still Lifes, may make viewers both wince and laugh. Featuring the bright colors, patterns and processed foods popular in that decade, the work captures something quintessentially American: an aspirational pursuit of an ideal. Peas and carrots, marble cake, chocolate striped cookies, and something that looks like SPAM are featured front and center against backgrounds made from kitsch-style patterned contact paper.
In one image, peas and carrots are intricately laid out in a geometric alternating pattern at the center of a paper plate with detail around its edges. The plate sits atop a sheet of contact paper that has endless quadrants of different uniform designs. The symmetry found in each area of the image’s patterns organizes the food still life into a settled final product. In many of the images, this same play with pattern is exercised. The simplistic repetitive designs on the various papers seem to echo the industrial manufacturing of processed food.
The Food Still Lifes series has only been shown in its entirety twice, and is now on view for the third time at Ryan Lee Gallery. It is also part of the book, Feast for the Eyes: The Story of Food in Photography, published by Aperture in 2017. A comment on food consumption is at the heart of Skoglund’s series and reveals some of the roots of American taste, despite current trends toward farm to table meals and organic products.
The role of photography in the field of advertising is also part of Skoglund’s interest in shooting the series. The carefully arranged presentation of food that is mass-produced on complimentary backdrops seems to poke fun at how consumers are manipulated by food photography. By creating aesthetically pleasing images that enhance shine, moisture, or vibrant color, audiences continue to be tantalized by illusions of freshness and flavor.
A few images in the series do not include food. This set of images uses patterned contact papers on boxes against backdrops that feature the same paper. The effect creates a sense of perceptual discord, requiring viewers to look closer to understand the distinct objects in the image, perhaps a comment of the duplicitous nature of perception in general.
Without a doubt, Skoglund’s hand in making the images, through her arrangements and food staging, highlight how far removed popular processed foods are from any notion of the handmade.
Sandy Skoglund: Food Still Lifes is on view at Ryan Lee Gallery through August 11, 2017.