The Tiny Photographs of Judy Fiskin

In the Ant's house, the dew is a flood.

A well-known children's story tells of a miniature family that lives in a regular-sized house, unbeknown to its regular-sized occupants. The diminutive parents and their wee offspring survive by "borrowing" – a button to use as a platter for a pilfered morsel of food, a thimble for a barrel in which to haul things around, a matchbox for a little girl's tiny surrogate bed.

Mary Norton's The Borrowers is not exactly hard-hitting – everybody is basically happy, the manufactured crisis is resolved by the closing pages and we all learn a valuable lesson. But it is also powerfully vertiginous, the text wildly and repeatedly distorting any sense of scale. Positioned as viewers of a deviant reality, we identify alternately with the tiny family, who perceive the world as monstrously huge and fraught with danger, and with the oblivious, "real"-world hosts, who fail to perceive the "borrowers" as anything but faint flecks on their already oversaturated visual fields.

Judy Fiskin makes tiny photographs, no more than a few inches square, which play with and against habitual modes of identification and perception. Fiskin's images do so – like Mary Norton's story – by directly engaging the body. To enter the miniscule worlds the photographs offer – postage-stamp-sized houses, chairs, floral arrangements and craft-show tableaux, each stationed at the center of a field of white – we must shrink into miniature phantasms of our normal selves (little people who fit into little chairs and live in little houses), or imaginatively expand those things so that they match up with our less fantastic corporeal forms. It sounds like high adventure, but there's nothing Swiftian or Rabelaisian about it. This is neither Gulliver among the Lilliputians, nor Gargantua bestriding the world. If anything, Fiskin's images are Nortonian – powerfully domestic, enjoying intimate status with their subjects, tangled up with the telling detail.

There is something profoundly Los Angeles about Fiskin's photographs, even when they document a trip to New York or Victorian houses spread out along the Jersey shore. She captures L.A.'s benighted landscape to ironic perfection in the 1982 series, Dingbat, which records subtle variations among legions of box-like apartment buildings. The Dingbats (all at least slightly off-kilter) fall into such Fiskin-designed categories of "Japanese Roofs," "Side Stairways" and "Geometric Facades." The deadpan array neatly suggests the vanity of attempting to conceal no-design design with weirdly non-indigenous adornments. But this is not what makes these images intensely familiar; it is rather the sense of longing built into Fiskin's work as a whole – a longing so strong that it drowns out the irony.

Fiskin conjures the yearning for permanence when we're otherwise used to seeing the world through the window of a speeding car, in a blur, a haze, each form a momentary blip on a fast-changing screen. Fiskin describes her images as stand-ins for possessions. But they are less about possession than a particular vision endemic to Los Angeles car culture – fragmented, careless and quick. Eminently legible and neatly framed with the black edges of the negatives from which they were printed, the photographs represent the desire to reverse that vision, to slow the world down and render it comprehensible, to see it from a pedestrian's eye-view at an unhurried pace.

Fiskin has been working in series since 1974, selecting a subject – Dingbat, Stucco, San Bernardino, Long Beach, Furniture – and ostensibly assembling, classifying and cataloguing specimens. But her scientificity – like that of a generation of conceptual chroniclers which includes Ed "Every Building on the Sunset Strip" Ruscha and Douglas "Photographing Everyone Alive" Huebler – is a ruse, a formal strategy designed to reveal the randomness, rather than the order, behind every self-proclaimed system. Fiskin's choices are not uniform, but as uniformly idiosyncratic as the white apartment house with the Chinese lattice-work screen projecting from its side, or the Victorian chaise uncovered in a corner of a dusty European museum.

Overstuffed and gilt-edged, that chaise joins several heavily carved Neo-Baroque chests and lavish Rococo cabinets to compose the 1988 Portraits of Furniture. Photographed in museum period rooms and display aisles, the series gently interrogates the aesthetics of presentation. While Louise Lawler similarly photographs works of art in their natural settings (corporate lobbies, collectors living rooms, museums), Fiskin is more interested in aesthetics than politics, less attentive to the ways the work of art validates a socio-economic class than in how it pictures that class to and for itself. For Fiskin, it's a matter of taste. Is this too gaudy? Is that elegant enough? Is this awkward? Is that just right? What, in sum, is the "correct" taste, and whom do we allow to define it for us?

Portraits of Furniture demonstrates that what has been consecrated by the institutional apparatus as "high" art plays equally well as low comedy. One photograph depicts a modest two-drawer wooden chest with curved legs alongside a towering double chest topped by an elaborate pedestal and perched upon delicate ball-and-claw feet. Together, they read as the Mutt and Jeff of Sotheby Parke Bernet, a poignant but conspicuously mismatched duo.

Fiskin is attracted to aesthetic "mistakes," to the ways in which cultivation and discernment unwittingly sabotage themselves. Such mistakes occur in the realm of high art as well as in the less vaunted realm of the popular. In 1984, Fiskin hit the flower show circuit and documented floral arrangements – Oriental-style with single meandering stalks, sparse bunches of posies trapped in wrought-iron birdcages and clusters of tables, each proudly boasting its own potted cactus. One of the more telling images depicts several tubular blossoms arranged in a tall ceramic pot embellished with a madly grimacing face. Displayed against a carpeted stretch of wall, the whole – intended to exude refinement, delicacy and grace – resembles nothing so much as an anthropomorphized vacuum cleaner complete with cord and attachments.

Fiskin's little pictures are funny, but they aren't about humor. Nor are they elitist, although at times they may appear condescending. They discombobulate the viewer, shaking up the confidently haphazard way we read images, especially art images. Fiskin began her career as an art historian, spending countless hours in darkened rooms poring over thousands of tiny slides which necessarily distort the works they depict. Slides pretend to simulate the work of art; in fact, they numb you to it. Slides are the Great Equalizer, (mis)representing massive frescoes, illuminated manuscripts, monumental architecture and precious mosaics in the same small, square format. They deceive regarding scale, while they falsify color and suppress detail. Fiskin plays out this triple distortion, erasing all intermediate hues so that her images read as pure white against deep black. They are recast not as slices of reality (the documentary photographer's traditional pretense), but as mnemonic triggers: a dark curve here, a sharp line there-and they near-magically solicit recollection.

I look at one of Fiskin's latest photographs, from the series Some Art, and I'm back in the N.Y.U. basement, memorizing slides for an ancient art exam. The image is particularly powerful – a detail from a Roman sarcophagus? a Greek frieze? I can't quite remember. The scene depicts a seated man – young, strong, distanced – with an older, bearded supplicant kneeling at his feet. At the edge of the frame stand three proud horses, waiting as if for some epochal decision. The carving is exquisite – the musculature, the expressions, the way the men's knees just barely touch, as if appeasement is imminent. And then it comes to me: it is the scene from the Iliad in which Priam kisses the hand of Achilles, begging him to return Hector's body. This is the moment when Achilles finally finds his humanity. But the image isn't taken from a Roman sarcophagus or from a Greek frieze. Judy Fiskin's photograph is a close-up view of a Wedgewood platter.

The knowledge is amusing, embarrassing and confusing. What we accept as a natural hierarchy – classical sculpture ranks higher than Sunday paintings, etched glass lamps, embroidered doilies, metal animal reliefs and Wedgewood platters, the subjects of her most recent series – is suddenly and irrevocably thrown into question. How can something merit serious attention if you can pick it up at a department store? How can it not merit serious attention if it is owned by a museum? Fiskin's quietly disquieting work does not deny our ability to make distinctions between Wedgewood and Phidias, The Borrowers and Gulliver' s Travels, but playfully embraces all of these and more in her tight focus.

– Susan Kandel