Hocus Focus

Photo magic is in the air this fall.

CPAC's 'evidence' lays out the many possibilities within the small world of documentary photography. The intellectual content, as well as what it says about the state of the art, makes for interesting viewing.

The big fall show at Rule Gallery on Broadway is Sandy Skoglund. Like 'evidence,' Skoglund is essentially a photography show, but that's where the comparison ends. Rule does not specialize in photography -- the gallery is usually fitted out with paintings -- but has long included the medium in its exhibition schedule.

The hugely famous Sandy Skoglund is a New York artist whose work can be found in museum, corporate and private collections around the world, including that of the Denver Art Museum. Skoglund came to the fore at the beginning of the 1980s.

"Saul," by Norma Quintana, gelatin silver print.
"Saul," by Norma Quintana, gelatin silver print.
"Peas on a Plate," by Sandy Skoglund, Cibachrome print.
"Peas on a Plate," by Sandy Skoglund, Cibachrome print.

Details

'evidence'
Through October 19
Colorado Photographic Arts Center, 1513 Boulder Street
303-455-8999

Sandy Skoglund
Through November 2
Rule Gallery, 111 Broadway
303-777-9473

That was the perfect decade for artists such as Skoglund, for several reasons.

An art rebellion staged by both artists and collectors took place in the '80s. People were tired of the half-century of formalist vs. anti-formalist debate that had been raging in the contemporary-art world. There seemed to be an inevitable progression from the cerebral and psychological abstract expressionism to its glib and sociological rejoinder in pop art, and from there to the end-all-discussion-on-the-matter arrival of minimalism.

This was all so heavy, and the '80s seemed like a good time to have some fun. Conceptualism was coming on strong, too, and Skoglund's work filled the bill on both counts. She created installations, and her photos, which today are her major claim to fame, are basically luxurious documents of her room-sized creations. Furthermore, simulating reality and subsequently recording the created environments puts Skoglund in the category of postmodern artist, another factor that helped propel her popularity.

In an additional bit of serendipity, the art world began to examine and rethink its entrenched sexism in the '80s. When, as a result, galleries and museums began looking for art by women, Skoglund was there. In fact, she was among the first generation of women to benefit from the efforts of feminists to give artists equal opportunities. Hard to believe it began only a couple of decades ago.

Finally, Skoglund's artifacts, installations and photos are perfectly crafted. Such attention to technical mastery gives her work an added appeal.

Skoglund's many attributes are showcased in the Rule show. The exhibit begins with "Blue Dog #11," a sculptural detail from an installation. The wall facing the entrance has been covered with fake grass. On a similarly covered stand in front is a blue cast-resin dog that's based on a cartoon canine.

The dog was an element of "The Green House," a Cibachrome print from 1990 that hangs on the other side of the same wall. In this photo, Skoglund portrays a room filled with cartoony blue resin dogs of every description. The furniture and the floor are covered in the fake grass used in the installation detail. "The Green House" is signature Skoglund and features a more-or-less realistic setting filled with imaginary and imaginative versions of animals.

"The Green House" is well-known and widely exhibited. Another famous image is "Fox Games," a Cibachrome print from 1987 in which red resin foxes frolic in a whitewashed restaurant. (The DAM owns a later and different version of both the installation and the Cibachrome print of "Fox Games." In these, the foxes are off-white and the restaurant is red.)

An interesting aspect of the Skoglund exhibit is the inclusion of early pre-classic pieces dating back to the late 1970s. These long-ignored works are undergoing a reappraisal right now, as evidenced by the inclusion of 1978's "Peas on a Plate" in Visions from America, Photographs, being presented at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art. The show at Rule also has a "Peas on a Plate" print. In it, Skoglund has arranged peas in a square in the middle of a plate decorated with polka dots; the plate sits on a tablecloth that has a pattern of polka dots within colored squares. Gosh, these early pieces nearly bring us back to that formalist/anti-formalist dialogue, don't they?

Skoglund's accomplishment is undeniable, and her place in the history of photography is assured. Because of this, Sandy Skoglund is one of the most important exhibits in town this fall.

I do have a duty to be true to myself, though, so I must confess that Skoglund's works have always struck me as pretty vacant -- conceptual without a concept. They're too clever, too cute, too kid-friendly: In my mind, I've always linked them to the goofy views of tarted-up dogs by William Wegman. And that's the cruelest thing I could ever say about any photograph.

Call me a curmudgeon, but I don't think it's enough for art to just be clever, cute or kid-friendly. And we can't even give Skoglund the benefit of the postmodern doubt, because we'd have to extend Wegman the same courtesy. And that also goes for any credit Skoglund might garner for how finely done the work is, because that's another Wegman strength.

I know I'm in the minority on this. If Skoglund's funhouse is what you're looking for, then you'll love this show. For me, the unpretentious photos at CPAC are considerably more appealing.

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