Once characterized as a Los Angeles variant on a German photographic tradition that now stretches from August Sander to Andreas Gursky, the work Judy Fiskin made between the '70s and the mid-'90s is a body of sleekly reductive typologies of different West Coast vernaculars. Always working serially, she has tried her hand at all genres, from landscapes ("Desert Photographs," 1976) to architectural exteriors ("Dingbat," 1982-83) to interiors and still lifes ("Some Aesthetic Decisions," 1984, and "Some Art," 1989-91"). The strict regularity, sharply graphic "look," diminutive scale, and tabletlike framing lend a sense of overarching coherence to Fiskin's restless eye.
The first sign of a substantial change in Fiskin's work came in 1998 with Diary of a Midlife Crisis, a video produced with the sort of small camera that appeared on the consumer market in the mid-'90s. Synching up the moments of production and reception à la Man with a Movie Camera, Diary documents, among other things, Fiskin's own learning curve with respect to a novel technology and form. The critical and popular success of the video announced the start of an auspicious new chapter; two more films ensued, both responses to the institutional contexts into which they had been curated: My Getty Center, 2000, for the recently relocated museum on high and What We Think About When We Think About Ships, 2001-2002 for LACMA's ambitious educational program, LACMALab. Last year brought 50 Ways to Set the Table, a relatively straight exploration, from within the gaudy halls of the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds, of the world of "tablescaping"—a higher-end version of what is more widely known as setting the table. This video takes tip many of the concerns that motivated her early work, but from a very different perspective. Participants in the competition for most creative or elegant arrangement of plates, napkins, cutlery, and candlesticks come from all rungs of the economic ladder, and it shows. Fiskin's photographic meditations on fetishism and taste have always contained an all-too-human subtext of social aspiration and abjection, but here it rises to the fore.
Fiskin's first show with this gallery showcased 50 Ways alongside an assortment of photographs from the two-decade-old "Some Aesthetic Decisions" series (showing everything from suburban mantlepieces to bonsai trees at another competition shrinking beside their oversize prize ribbons); their juxtaposition provided a perfect opportunity to connect the dots between the old and the new. Next to the video, the photographs tended to lose some of their po-faced autonomy: Everything excluded by the earlier project was seemingly replenished by the later. The video, for its part, seemed to become doubly inclusive, as though newly endowed with the ability to move "between frames," showing the table setting—and by extension the image, the world—in the process of making.
Even at their most "natural," Fiskin's images have shown us a reality infested with representation, a world reconstituted as work, and this no doubt explains why the artificial paradise of Southern California remains her principal stomping ground. The photographs claim the works of one context (the "common" culture) for another (art), a classic avantgarde tactic, yet Fiskin's version of this strategy is remarkable for its specificity. Instead of simply disrupting categorical boundaries, she opens to scrutiny the process itself by which these boundaries have traditionally been both erected and undermined.
The tabletop displays in 50 Ways are designed to incite maximum desire, which makes their actual fates at the hands of the film's blasé judges all the more pathetic. As we watch these dismissive experts making their rounds, the distance between their context and the one we occupy as gallerygoers narrows. "Been there, done that"—these people are us, and all of us are critics. More surprising, though, is how this encounter with a surprisingly familiar world makes an impact on our viewing habits: Here, perhaps for the first time, the experience of recognition does not give way to a sense of superiority.