She's not a dingbat - that's what she shoots - Fiskin's witty photos spotlight L.A. apartment buildings

dingbat n. (colloq.): the classic wood and stucco box apartment of the 1950s and '60s, primarily found near the freeways in Los Angeles and environs.

Judy Fiskin's "dingbat" photographs make me crazy. Just when the conviction has taken hold that photography is, at bottom, the fabrication of an utter fiction and not the capturing of a bit of the real world within the camera's viewfinder, Fiskin comes along to throw a monkey-wrench into the proceedings.

She's worked with various categories of subject matter in the past several years - desert landscapes, Hollywood bungalows, amusement-park rides - but her new group of 45 images of "decorated box" apartment buildings seems to signal a slight shift in her concerns. These photographs, which are on view at Newspace Gallery, 5241 Melrose Avenue, through Jan. 8, do capture a bit of the real world, but not simply by representing it on film; rather, these photographs' common structure appears to be equivalent to the structure of the world she photographs.

At first look, all of Fiskin's black-and-white images seem pretty much the same. All the images, printed on white rectangular fields about eight-by-six inches in size, are tiny: Delineated by the heavy and irregular black border of the negative's frame, they are but 2 1/2 inches square. All of the buildings are pictured dead-on, their frontality emphasizing a graphic two-dimensionality. All are seen centrally within the square format and from the same distance – across the street – and all are printed so that street and sky are bleached to nearly the same whiteness as the photographic paper.

Fiskin's dingbats are rational, orderly, almost classically structured photographs. While the colloquial term would suggest a zany, out-of-whack, eccentric irrationality, Fiskin's approach to the subject, like the definition of the word, is quite the opposite. As with a morphological examination of the form and structure of a natural species of plant or animal, her series of images groups and classifies one intimate product of human fabrication.

This dingbat genus of architecture has been further subdivided into various species, each with common attributes, and these have been grouped and hung together in the show. There are the self-explanatory categories of "Peaked Roofs," "Geometrics" and "Side Stairways." And there are the more esoteric-sounding "Japanese" (which does not describe the style of decoration – one is festooned with kitschy Colonial American motifs – but the two-story structure with overhanging roofs atop each story), "Landscape" (in which the extremely stylized plantings of shrubbery and trees are huddled close to the building, becoming the primary decor for the stark facade) or "Eccentric" (a catchall group of wildly differing structures which strangely suggests that an "eccentric" is an atypical "dingbat," paradoxically emphasizing that the odd-sounding dingbat is perfectly normal).

In Fiskin's work, an orderly, classicist kind of logic begins to take over. You start to crossindex the images: All the "Japanese" apartments, for instance, have peaked roofs – thus qualifying for that species, too – but none of the "Peaked Roof" apartments have the bifurcated, double-roof overhang, thus disqualifying them from the "Japanese" species. "Peaked Roof" and "Japanese" together form a Cartesian product: Dingbat.

At the same time, however, these photographs are anything but cold and impersonal. All of Fiskin's serial work from the past several years – the deserts, bungalows, decaying amusement-park rides and now apartment buildings – have a "faded glory" quality to them, in part because of their association with the past. Despite the familiarity of her subjects, they exude a remoteness that almost makes them seem like memories poised on the brink of vanishing.

Simultaneously, the orderliness imposed by the artist on these diverse dingbats yields a timeless quality, while the vernacular style of the architecture is tied to a particular time and place. The two dimensionally graphic style of the print is bathed in the natural, harsh light of a moment. Although the actual buildings were photographed from across the street, the images are printed so small that you come up close to peer at them – they have a distanced intimacy. Together, a complex experience of past, present and future fuses.

It is the virtual absence of people from these images that makes Fiskin's photographs feel so personal. The photographer is present in the clearly ordered sensibility on view – the pictures declare themselves as the residue of human manipulation – and we become the passers-by that populate her landscape.
As their colloquial name implies, these communal dwellings are aberrations. But there is a clear, and clearly human, logic to these aberrant places. Within the intimacy of the encounter is a positioning of a larger universal law. Within the intellectual classicism of an analytical examination of the world is an insistance on the irrational and the arbitrary as the stuff of order.

Fiskin is a photographer of sharp intelligence, a very warm and subtle wit, and a decided humanism. Given the subject matter, it would have been very simple to compile a quasi-documentary assemblage of strange apartment buildings that look rather like giant clock-radios, for the purpose of exploiting the easy cliches associated with much of Southern California's indigenous architecture. But she has eschewed the cheap shot in favor of a revelation of individual dignity and communal worth.

In the process, she's redefined the term with which she started:

dingbat n. (art historical): one of an exceptional series of photographs made in 1982 by Judy Fiskin of the classic wood and stucco box apartments of the 1950s and '60s, primarily found near the freeways in Los Angeles and environs.

– Christopher Knight, Herald Examiner art critic