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Lesson Plans

Skoglund's View of Suburbia

[ Thread ][ Subject ][ Author ][ Date ]
Mon, 22 Apr 1996 12:20:47 -0800

Please note that the following information along with images can also be
found on the ArtsEdNet web site in the Connections section. You can
use the "Sandy Skoglund: Teaching Contemporary Art" link on the home
page to access this section directly.

Skoglund's View of Suburbia: Probing Questions, Facts, and
Observations for Teaching About Sandy Skoglund's "Germs Are
Everywhere," "The Green House," "Gathering Paradise"

Sydney Walker
Department of Art Education
Ohio State University and
Terry Barrett
Visiting Scholar
Getty Center for Education in the Arts
The following are prompts for getting learners involved in discussions of
three thematically related images made by Sandy Skoglund. The prompts
are meant to help you and your students engage in inquiry-based art
criticism, especially interpretive criticism, of Skoglund's work so that your
students learn more about art criticism, the work of a contemporary
artists, and contemporary art in general. Please try these activities
yourself and with your students, invent others for these images, and tell
all of us about what you are doing. We hope that you will share your and
your students' best comments and reactions by sending an e-mail
message to ArtsEdNet Talk, the e-mail discussion group:

Suburbia as Ideology

Suburbia Is More Than a Geographical Location, It Is an Ideology.

What are the ideological roots of suburbia?

What are the cultural stereotypes that construct our idea of suburbia?

Are these images suburban: "Germs Are Everywhere," "The Green
House," "Gathering Paradise"?

Skoglund situated these four installations in suburban settings.
"Gathering Paradise" is easily identified as suburban.

Are there cultural signs that tell us that the other settings are

What Does Skoglund Think of Suburbia?
Skoglund has lived in both East Coast and California suburbs and she is
negative about the experience: "I'm very interested in the idea of the
normal and from that point of view, suburbia was a haunting experience.
It's so empty of real content and engagements... It's always the same, a
repetition of brand new homes, the smell of Formica, the same sterility."

Which of the four installations most reflects Skoglund's expressed
attitudes toward suburbia?

Ideological Roots of Suburbia
The American suburb has roots in Jeffersonian ideals of the virtues of
rural living as opposed to the social evils of urban dwelling. Such
Nineteenth Century writers as Emerson and Hawthorne expressed the
desire for a world of picturesque villages and cottages. Painters of the
Hudson Valley School similarly presented a view of idealized nature that
is pure, virtuous, and benign.

According to J. John Palen, The Suburbs (1995), the suburb is "a
pragmatic American response insofar as it was an attempt to practically
prepackage the rural virtues... Moving one's family from the crowded,
sinful city to the pure and open country was not just a practical decision;
it was a moral choice."

Postwar critics of the 1950's viewed the suburbs as a "social
wasteland" dominated by the blandness of popular culture and the mass
media. Has suburban living achieved the 19th century ideals or is it
closer to the view of its critics? Or is it something other than what is
represented by these two views?

When you think of suburbia, what images come to mind?

If you were to make an image of suburbia what would you include?
What would you be certain to exclude?

Romanticizing Nature
Suburbia is supposed to offer an escape from urban filth, noise, and
overcrowding. It is supposed to present people with an idealized life
amidst nature.

What does "Gathering Paradise," "The Green House," and "Germs Are
Everywhere" imply about suburban living and nature?

"The Green House"

Fascinating Fact
Skoglund contracted a professional upholsterer to cover the sofas,
chairs, and pillows in "The Green House." She remembers that the job
was very expensive.

Fascinating Fact
Skoglund considers dogs to be a reflection of the way humans have
made animals in their own image.

Fascinating Fact
Skoglund deliberately created a variety of dogs rather than a single type
as with the foxes. How many breeds can you identify?

Fascinating Fact
The artist associates two of the dogs with Walt Disney's "Lady and the
Tramp." Can you find them?

Fascinating Fact
Skoglund remarks that art critics often use the term "Astroturf" to
describe the grass covering in "The Green House," but that it is actually
raffia grass which is much softer and more grass-like.

What are the consequences of her choice of raffia instead of
"Astroturf?" How might the expression of the piece differed if it were

"Gathering Paradise"

Art critic Eleanor Heartney characterizes "Gathering Paradise" as
"nature's revenge against culture." She further remarks that "the title of
this work underscores its irony. The suburban ideal--a life balanced
between city and country is a carefully domesticated setting--is undone.
Nature in the form of the horde of cute little squirrels, refuses to accept
its role as decorative accessory, instead it blindly multiplies, mocking the
suburbanite's dream of order and with it all our fantasies of mastery and

Do you agree with Heartney?
Is suburbia about mastering and controlling nature?
Do you think Skoglund would agree with Heartney's assessment?

"The Green House"

Photographer Bill Owens lived in a California suburb and in the early
1970's documented three suburban communities with accompanying
comments from the subjects (Suburbia, San Francisco: Straight Arrow
Press, 1973). Owens relates that "The people I met enjoy the life-type of
the suburbs. They have realized the American dream. They are proud to
be home owners and to have achieved material success."

One of Owens's suburban subjects made these comments: "I bought the
lawn in size-foot rolls. It's easy to handle. I prepared the ground and my
wife and son helped roll out the grass. In one day you have a front

Do the comments of the person installing a front yard relate to
Skoglund's "The Green House?"

"Germs Are Everywhere"

Does "Germs Are Everywhere" comment on the suburbanite's relation to
nature? Consider the wax fruit, the plastic plant, the choice of the shade
of green, and the title.

Fascinating Fact
Skoglund made the germs of chewing gum.

Is this an appropriate choice of media? Why?

Is the woman aware of the germs?

Are the germs aware of the woman?

Colors as Formal Choices

Skoglund uses green in "Germs Are Everywhere" and "The Green

Is green the identifying color of suburbia?

If so, why pink for "Gathering Paradise?"

How does pink affect the meaning of "Gathering Paradise?"

Compare the effects of the different choices of greens Skoglund
made for "Germs Are Everywhere" and "The Green House." How and
what do the different greens express?

Fascinating Fact
They may not be visible in reproductions of "The Green House," but two
small green animal skulls lie under the coffee table and a large green
roach rests on top of the coffee table.

How does this information influence your interpretation of the

Critic Meg Hamilton interprets the dark emerald green of "The Green
House" as a sign of materialist greed and desire for security.

Do you find other evidence in the installation that supports Hamilton's