Do Cheez Doodles decay?

Sandy Skoglund’s photograph and sculpture, both titled The Cocktail Party, each picture the same icon of 20th century suburbia. But something has gone horribly wrong. Covering every surface — floor, table, chairs, and people — are Cheez Doodles, filling the scene with screaming orange. Is it funny? Yes, funny like the fifth hour of a fever dream, with the temperature rising.

Skoglund, born in 1946, is one of the most masterful and influential artists of her generation. She blends photography and sculpture, conceptualism and pop-culture, in a dizzy mix of obsession and psychodrama teetering to the edge of balance. Playful, easy to appreciate, immediate, and highly visceral, her work is yet far from simple, it escapes category. Born in Weymouth, Mass., and trained at Smith College and the University of Iowa in studio art, art history, and multi-media, Skoglund is best known for her series of tableaux, or directorial, photography. Using the commercial photographer’s repertoire of set building and storytelling, she makes images that are fantastic, filled with illusion and dread.

The two artworks that are The Cocktail Party pursue themes of social discomfort and repetition that have driven Skoglund since the 1970s. They were recently acquired by the McNay and are on view as ARTMATTERS 14, the current edition of the museum’s series of works by contemporary artists. The tableau sculpture and accompanying photograph are twins, but not identical. The sculpture appears to be the set of the scene depicted in the photograph. It is, however, a result of the picture, not its source.

The photograph was made in 1992; the McNay has a recent print. Like many of Skoglund’s pieces, the image looks like an outtake from a surrealist film or extremely quirky sci-fi movie. To construct the scene, Skoglund built a set and hired models. You can see their faces peeking out from the swarms of Cheez Doodles that cover their bodies and everything else in the room. Cheez Doodles are, of course, the snack food that is infamous for leaving trails of sticky orange dust on everything it touches. Skoglund, who claims a preference for solitude and feels unease in social settings, has used the invading Doodles as metaphor for the anxiety that fills the room during what is falsely supposed to be a light, pleasant occasion. Promising congeniality, the cocktail party is an arena where fashion accessories and conversation are weapons used in combat to determine the winners in the fight for top social status.

In the sculpture, which Skoglund reconfigured from remains of the photography set of two decades past, the situation has grown worse. No sign of skin is left; the people have become veritable mannequins, caricatures of the human. Several of the figures make simple, repetitive movements as if mechanized, compelled. They are. Skoglund has replaced the models used in the photograph with mechanical store dummies.

Since she first began her career as a conceptual artist when she moved to New York City in 1972, Skoglund has used repetition and variation as grounding devices in her explorations. The relationship between photograph and sculpture is a variant of her compulsion to repeat, but never simply copy. Her first NYC works were serial art works, photocopies of saltine crackers, which were then crumpled, photocopied again and again in generations of increasing distortion, searching for that moment when art happens, or alternatively, when the object disappears. She first started photography, which she has never studied, while living in a trailer house during the early 1970s where she took many pictures of faces reflected in cheap, chrome appliances, subverting the aura of privilege associated with society portraiture. She began explorations with food later in the decade as a means of creating a common language, since, “after all, everyone eats.”

Her current style of building has continued since Radioactive Cats, a large tableau made in 1980. Following the thread that began with the simple photocopies, Skoglund added her love of intense manual labor to fabricate dozens of cat figures by hand. Animals appear in many other works, like Fox Games. The sprawling sculpture is owned by the Denver Art Museum. Food appears, not as comfort, but danger. In her 2001 piece Raining Popcorn, intimations of genetically modified corn are made, a threat only recently acknowledged in the U.S. when bio-engineered corn intended for livestock infected the human food supply in 2000, throwing the industry into a panic. There are always so many similar, yet different things in her works, which pay homage to commercial studio photography, but, as Skoglund explained during her January 30 lecture at the McNay, she has undermined commercial money with time by building absurdly complex sets. The photographs are time frozen, but the sculptures age like the rest of the material world, pieces get broken off. Then Sandy Skoglund makes another. •

Sandy Skoglund: The Cocktail Party

$8 adults, $5 students, seniors, and military

Noon-5pm Sun; 10am-4pm Tue, Wed, Fri; 10am-9pm Thu; 10am-5pm Sat

Through May 8

McNay Art Museum

6000 N New Braunfels

(210) 824-5368

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