Judy Fiskin does not live in a dingbat.
Nor does she live in a stucco box. Although such vernacular forms of Southern California architecture have often been the subject of her photographs, Fiskin lives in a respectable Spanish-style West L.A. house that once belonged to that avuncular character actor Guy Kibbee.
Inside, the walls and sofas are very white, the tables made of warm, blond wood, the floors of red tile. Very tidy. She introduces her husband, Jon Wiener, UC Irvine professor of history and contributing editor to the Nation, who has gained notoriety for working with the American Civil Liberties Union to successfully sue the FBI for the release of its files on John Lennon.
As the tour of the house continues, it appears that Fiskin’s own photographs are not in evidence. Instead, there are works, all in black and white, by artists who were still students when she taught at CalArts: Cindy Bernard, Jill Giegerich and Mike Kelley. Fiskin points to a small photogram of a pattern of white sugar cubes on a black background, the creation of Edouard Steichen as a commission for the Stelhi Silk Co. “This is my favorite piece,” she says.
This makes sense. Fiskin’s own photographs are uniformly black and white and small scale, and often concern the dissolution of boundaries between art that is classified as high or low, craft or decoration, professional or hobbyist. She leads the way to her darkroom, adjacent to the kitchen, and with a mysterious smile announces: “The house is the ego, the darkroom is the id.”
It is at least a contrast. Every inch of wall space is plastered with pictures torn from magazines and books: a Louis XIV salon, illustrations of 18th-Century moldings, Victorian hats, tribal sculpture and Malevich paintings. A pile of proof sheets loosely stacked on the enlarger is evidence of her own work, which is in a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art through Dec. 6: “Judy Fiskin: Some Photographs, 1973-1992.” The exhibition, organized by Ann Goldstein, is part of MOCA’s “Focus” series on discrete bodies of work by individual artists.
Like Ed Ruscha, who photographed every building on the Sunset Strip, and Alexis Smith, who transformed B-grade movie posters into art, Fiskin triumphs in bringing the undervalued aesthetics of Southern California into the spotlight. By presenting subject matter that many would call banal--from the ranch houses of San Bernardino to anonymous paintings at a county fair--in a tiny but compelling format, she invites viewers to stop, focus and wonder.
In a politely subversive manner that seems very much in keeping with her personality, she has become an invaluable addition to the roster of artists important to the developing history of art on the West Coast. Her latest work takes on the very institution of art history, tacitly questioning how some aesthetic decisions become masterpieces and others wind up at the swap meet.
Fiskin, 47, has the complexion and profile of a Fragonard woman, but she is outfitted in a practical black cotton shirt and slacks. She rummages through a file drawer and finds six photographs taken in the last year for her most recent series, “More Art.” Like most of the photographs of the last two decades, they are black and white and approximately 2 3/4 inches square. One of the most arresting is the profile of a heavyset man with a five o’clock shadow, his golden locks piled in an implausibly tall hairstyle. It is impossible to tell if he is living or dead, though he looks vaguely familiar. It turns out to be a wax effigy of Louis XIV.
“More Art” also includes photographs of a rounded sofa from a Sheraton pattern book, a sandpaper painting of George Washington’s tomb and a painting of a sailing ship in an elaborate frame made entirely of rope knots. These disparate pictures are linked by the fact that they were all photographed out of books, which is a departure for Fiskin.
“When I’m photographing from books, it’s not appropriation. I’m interested in and believe in the power of photographic transformation,” she says. “Even though it sounds unlikely,