Interpreting Sandy Skoglund's
Maybe Babies Through Beliefs About Religion
Department of Art Education, Ohio State University and
Visiting Scholar, Getty Center for Education in the Arts
Maybe Babies and Signs
Signs of Life and Death
Skoglund simultaneously encodes Maybe Babies with signs of life and
death. What evidence do you find for each?
Is Maybe Babies about life or death?
What does the evidence suggest?
Life -- Oxyhemoglobin is the red protein that stains our blood and gives
our flesh the color of life.
Death -- Bluish skin tones signify old age and the approach of death.
Evidence -- Skoglund paints the twenty infants with pink and blue skin
Life -- Youth
Death -- Old Age
Evidence -- Skoglund contrasts the active infants with the immobile older
man behind the rear window.
Life -- Growth
Death -- Cessation
Evidence -- The lawn beside the suburban house is barren of all
vegetation except for the strange tentacle-like green growths.
Life -- Light
Death -- Dark
The Greek god of Night was father to the twin gods of Death and
Evidence -- Skoglund bathes the installation in darkness except for the
artificial illumination at the rear.
Floating, Flying, Falling
The weightless, floating babies have much to do with the pervasive
supernatural sensation in Maybe Babies. Leonard Shlain, (Art and
Physics , 1991) remarks that "The common sense experience of what
goes up must come down is so central to our experience that anything
that defies this law attains the status of a miracle."
A commonly recurrent theme in nightmares is falling and a most common
phobia is acrophobia, fear of heights.
"Fall" is a term with negative cultural connotations. Its etymological root is
the same as the term, "fail." Consider the following uses of "fall" in
empires fall sinners fall from grace we fall on hard times
Humpty-Dumpty took a great fall
Icarus flew too close to the sun and was punished by falling to the earth
one doesn't want to be a fallen woman or the fall guy the European
sailor's greatest fear in the middle ages was falling off the edge of the
Lucifer fell to earth from heaven leaders fall from favor
Jack & Jill took a great fall wounded soldiers fall in battle one falls sick fall
into ruin a fallen face
Signs of Blue
In many cultures, red has been considered the ultimate high energy color
and blue a more impotent, passive expression. However, in the mid-19th
century, Western artists and scientists began to investigate the color
blue in ways that reverse this popular assumption.
Colors as Signs
Scientists and the Color Blue
In the mid-19th century scientists discovered that, contrary to popular
assumptions, the blue portion of a flame was the hottest, not the red,
orange, and yellow portions. Blue, not red, contained the highest energy.
Astronomers similarly found that the hottest stars are ones which burn
with a blue-white light. The older stars, the big red giants, are the older
cooling stars. Geologists learned that the blue-white diamond requires
the most force over the longest time for creation while yellow-red
diamonds are produced with less force. The blue star sapphire is more
valued than the ruby.
Additionally, scientists found that an object moving toward an observer
at near the speed of light appears bluer than objects left behind which
appear to be redder. Thus in the new physics, blue turns out to be the
color of fire and red the color of ice.
Artists and the Color Blue
Pre-1860 European artists demonstrated a preference for red-brown
hues over blue-violet ones. But in the modernist period in France, the
color blue began to dominate the canvases of Impressionist,
Post-Impressionist and Fauve artists. Monet, Van Gogh, Gauguin and
Matisse discovered the high energy vibrations of cobalt and cerulean
pigments. Picasso executed a series of monochromatic paintings in the
color blue. He also had a Rose
Period, but unlike his work of the Blue Period, the paintings are not
A group of Expressionist painters in Munich named themselves Der
Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider Group) and one of them, Franz Marc,
declared, "Blue is the masculine principle, robust and spiritual." In the
1960's Yves Klein created a series of monochromatic works painted
with pigment he called "International Klein Blue". Later Klein used
"living brushes," nude paint covered models who applied the blue
pigment to canvases under his direction and the artist affirmed the
sexual nature of blue.
Skoglund painted the twenty infants for Maybe Babies with pink and blue
tonalities. What meanings do pink and blue exhibit in this context?
The Sign of Blue
Leonard Shlain, Art and Physics (1991)
How Does Skoglund Use the Color Blue?
Is blue an important color for Skoglund?
Does the artist use the color blue as fire or ice?
Consider the color blue in The Green House. Is it energetic?
Electric? Passive? Cool? What if the dogs were red?
Consider the color blue in Maybe Babies. Is this fire and ice? What
difference would it make if the babies were all pink?
Compare Skoglund's pink and blue babies with Picasso's monochromatic
figures from his Blue Period. Are they similar or different? How?
Consider the color blue in Revenge of the Goldfish. Is this a hot blue? A
cool blue? A restful blue? A sexual blue? What if Skoglund changed the
blue to brown?
Interpreting Maybe Babies in the 1990s
Art critics and students interpret Maybe Babies as reflection of
contemporary culture. What social issues does this work raise for you?
Why is Maybe Babies so Disturbing?
Many consider Maybe Babies one of Skoglund's more disturbing works.
The element of humor that often counters her more serious content is
missing from this installation. Both professional critics and student critics
find the work unsettling.
Art Critics Interpret Maybe Babies
Marge Goldwater, 1987
There is fear of a personal nature as in Breeze At Work (1987), which
is, in part, about death. But there is also a strong social dimension here
and in works such as Radioactive Cats (1980) or Maybe Babies
(1983). Skoglund puts Surrealism in the service of social and political
commentary, as she expresses concerns about the workplace,
overpopulation, aging and nuclear war, if not exactly by analogy, then by
allusion or hyperbole.
Nan Richardson, 1991
Skoglund constructed an environment that consisted of looming,
abandoned babies floating weightless before a middle-aged man as
though he were experiencing a horrifying vision of the punishment in
wait for his untamed sexuality. The psychological ambiguity carries the
piece well beyond any simplistic comment on the population explosion.
Arlene Raven, 1992
In Maybe Babies (1983), her chilling indictment of the deteriorating quality
of the world today, Skoglund positions luminescent pick and blue infants
crawling, bouncing and even flying on a lawn beside a house at the rear
of the picture. From the illuminated window, a member of an older
generation, his skin a ruddy red-orange behind protective glass,
cautiously peers out.
The worldly and otherworldly collide in an ordinary suburban setting
turned supernatural by night and scary. The possibility of extinction or
mutation raised by the presence of progeny hangs in the air like the
babies themselves, suspended between a dark looming sky and a
ground sprouting strangely electrified tentacle-like green growths that
chart the paths of the possibly contaminated offspring.
Virginia Beach High School Students Interpret Maybe Babies
Issue rape crack babies physical abuse overpopulation divorce religion
Reference coils in ground/umbilical cords unwanted babies distorted
babies black and blue babies too many babies separated parents and
Virginia Beach High School Students' Descriptors for Maybe Babies
Feeling confusing overwhelming sympathy neglect cold, death, danger
Cause disorganized so many babies look hungry, naked, trapped babies
outside, man inside babies' color babies seem vulnerable
Some Ohio State University Students' Interpretations of Maybe Babies
Babies that have not made it into the world safely for some reason or
Babies that continue to search endlessly for safety and security.
Babies don't look human. Even their heads are more like a soft, mushy
bowl of jelly and their eyes are those of an alien.
Babies appear either premature, sick or deformed, but definitely not
Green and black dangling wires represent umbilical cords.
The green and black colors may signify disease.
Inside the house, a dim light represents the safety and security that the
babies do not enjoy in their dark, gloomy world.
Some babies climb the walls of the house seeking entrance hoping that
the elderly man will take them in before it's too late.
The babies are in a world of their own, on a perhaps never-ending
journey towards happiness, serenity and a secure life.
What descriptive terms would you use for Maybe Babies?