The tiny photographs of Judy Fiskin

Judy Fiskin, "Untitled," 1974. Gelatin-silver print, 7 x 5 in.

On the surface, Judy Fiskin’s tiny photographs of stucco apartment buildings (Stucco, 1973-6) and Southern California architecture (31 Views of San Bernadino, 1974) belong to a subset of works by artists obsessed with the typography of architecture, à la Bernd and Hilla Becher, or even Ed Ruscha. Each of these artists has produced dozens, if not hundreds, of images of buildings, usually in black-and-white.  The similarity ends there, however.  Whereas the Bechers were genuinely interested in documenting “type,” and Ruscha finds humor in investigating the banal, Fiskin’s photographs question where one draws the line between the mundane and the precious.

Judy Fiskin, "Signal Hill, Willow and Cherry, Facing Southwest, from the Long Beach," California Documentary Survey Project, 1980. Gelatin silver print on paper mounted on paperboard. 2 1/2 x 2 3/8 in. Collection of Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Straight-on shots of ordinary tract homes and businesses, the photographs in Stucco and 31 Views of San Bernadino average only a few inches in height, achieving gravitas through their position: centered in a vast white matte and frame. Other works—like the series Aesthetic Decisions (1984) and Portraits of Furniture (1984)—are more complicated, taking precious, intentionally artful objects and forcing them to hold up to sustained attention.  The viewer’s thoughts involve an internal struggle, noticing both the beauty and the awkwardness of an arrangement, with Fiskin staying pointedly neutral.

“They don’t hang straight!  They don’t drape!”

“Do you want to say they detract from elegance?”

“Yes, because they don’t drape properly.”

“They don’t drape properly.”


Fiskin also uses that oh-so-unsentimental of mediums, video, to similar effect.  Perhaps the best example is 50 Ways to Set the Table (2003), a 26-minute long mini-documentary of the process of judging the Tablescaping Competition at the Los Angeles County Fair in 2001.  Without taking sides, Fiskin follows two female judges in their process of deciding the winners of categories like “Country Christmas” and “The Lion King,” plus the best-in-show.

“You know, this tablecloth is so white that it makes the salt off-white?  I had to take a second look at that—I’m wondering, is that Parmesan cheese in there?”

Judy Fiskin, "50 Ways to Set the Table," 2003. Still from a digital video with sound), running time 26 minutes. Courtesy Angles Gallery.

I love Fiskin’s sense of humor, but what I appreciate most is the reminder that to limit one’s toolbox to irony and sarcasm is to take the lazy way out. In the clang and clatter of all the artistic voices present for Pacific Standard Time, the Getty’s multi-venue, six-month initiative to showcase post-World War II art from Southern California, the tiny photographs and video of Judy Fiskin hold their own.

Judy Fiskin is represented in Los Angeles by Angles Gallery. Fiskin’s works are on view at various exhibits as part of Pacific Standard Time, including MOCA’s ‘Under the Big Black Sun': California Art 1974-81, California Museum of Photography’s Seismic Shift: California Landscape Photography, the Getty Museum’s In Focus: Los Angeles, 1945-1980, and the L.A. Municipal Art Gallery’s Civic Virtue: The Impact of the L.A. Municipal Art Gallery. For individual show information, please follow the links above.