New & NowArt

Vintage Snacks As (Strange, Beautiful) Still Lifes

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I grew up watching my classmates eat Lunchables on playground benches; cling wrapped, plastic bento boxes for the early aughts school kid. Each unit—a crowded multi-car garage with a vague nationality—housed stacks of pepperoni slices and pizza sauce, mini taco shells, white and orange cheese potpourri. Something about those easily navigable, readily customizable midday meal kits activated our pre-Chipotle pleasure centers and kept us, if not nutritionally balanced, gastrically so.

"Nine Slices of Marble Cake" (1978). Courtesy the artist and Ryan Lee gallery, New York.
"Nine Slices of Marble Cake" (1978). Courtesy the artist and Ryan Lee gallery, New York. Photo by Sandy Skoglund ©

Processed food feels inherently nostalgic. It’s youthful and naive, and hearkens to a time when ingredient lists and nutrition facts might as well have been foreign languages. Plastic packaging and aluminum cans are air-tight memory receptacles.

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Sandy Skoglund’s Food Still Lifes grasp at the nostalgia baked and stirred and zapped into the foods of an era now passed. Shot in 1978, the series of 10 photographs are currently on view at Ryan Lee gallery in Chelsea. Their punchy patterns provide a welcome contrast to stark gallery walls.

Installation view of Food Still Lifes, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Ryan Lee gallery, New York.
Installation view of Food Still Lifes, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Ryan Lee gallery, New York. Photo by Sandy Skoglund

The American photographer and installation artist is known for her surreal sensibilities, often using food to twist the limits of convention. (The Cocktail Party, a 1992 installation, imagines a cocktail party entirely covered in Cheez Doodles.)

Skoglund’s Food Still Lifes are both frenetic in color and static in stature. She isolates ready-made foods against ready-made contact sheets: peas on polka dots, ham on marble, marble cake on swirls of blue and purple. The foods themselves appear sculptural: In Cookies on a Plate, the chocolate lattices of Keebler cookies align with a crisscrossed, gingham background.

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“Cookies on a Plate” (1978). Courtesy the artist and Ryan Lee gallery, New York.
“Cookies on a Plate” (1978). Courtesy the artist and Ryan Lee gallery, New York. Photo by Sandy Skoglund ©
"Peas and Carrots on a Plate" (1978). Courtesy the artist and Ryan Lee gallery, New York.
"Peas and Carrots on a Plate" (1978). Courtesy the artist and Ryan Lee gallery, New York. Photo by Sandy Skoglund ©
"Luncheon Meat on a Counter" (1978). Courtesy the artist and Ryan Lee gallery, New York.
"Luncheon Meat on a Counter" (1978). Courtesy the artist and Ryan Lee gallery, New York. Photo by Sandy Skoglund ©

The effect is aging yet surprisingly contemporary. And while the foods may be cribbed from the pantry of All in the Family, and the contact sheets aggressively retro, the angle is pure age de la Instagram. Maybe she's touching on the morbid fascination we have with food (guilty!) and the distance that keeps us from ever truly understanding it.

But maybe not. They’re also just really pretty to look at.

Sandy Skoglund: Food Still Lifes is on view at Ryan Lee (515 W 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 11.

Tags: art, photography, snacks, vintage, 1970s