Sight Unscene, The Virtual World of Judy Fiskin
Judy Fiskin: More Art. Patricia Faure Gallery

Judy Fiskin's photographic style can best be described as deadpan: black-and-white images, two and one-half inches square, printed out on slick, white, letter-sized paper and ensconced behind chunky black frames. The subjects she captures seem equally ordinary – be they desert scenes, military buildings, or period furniture. But upon extended viewing, Fiskin's photos blossom from straight-ahead to subtly skewed, and from dull to droll, especially her popular Dingbats series, wherein she documents that unique style of Southern California architecture – the small-to-midsized apartment building – in all its strangely stuccoed, artfully appliquéed, and nuttily numbered glory.

Fiskin's photographs are not documents, per se, as there's no such intent: There are no captions, no attempts at comprehensiveness or order. Instead, Fiskin's series exhibits the pared-down, no-nonsense look we've come to expect from the amateur academics we call conceptual artists. But her work, though surely invested in the taxonomies of photography and the politics of representation, is not simply about process or tricky rhetoric – it's about seeing. By privileging the visual, Fiskin's pictures are at once infinitely more interesting than run-of-the-mill photographic conceptual art (which uses photography only as a thing to criticize, or as a language through which to criticize other things) and more down to earth: Fiskin is one of very few artists who make art – conceptual or otherwise – that performs not for us or on us, but through us.

The exhibition More Art is a series of photos, most of which have been shown before, depicting a mix of nineteenth-century and turn-of-the-century artistic ephemera. All of the subjects – from catalog illustrations to postcards – are, in one sense or another, art; by photographing (and in some cases, re-photographing) such second-string cultural objects, Fiskin doubly removes them from a concrete art-historical context. She then smoothes them over with her uniform style, allowing us to look at them anew, and without an (apparent) intrusive agenda.

All of her photographs are untitled, though descriptive parenthetical phrases are appended. A wax profile of Louis XIV is creepily lifelike, and made strangely common by Fiskin's cropping of any royal trappings. The French effigy's weirdly three-dimensional hair is echoed in a photo of a nautical painting surrounded by a thick frame of knotted rope, and again in a staticky shot of a sandpaper painting of George Washington's tomb (all three, 1992). The oval compositions of a nineteenth-century mosaic view of Rome (1992), and an Edward Gorey-esque American mourning embroidery of the same period (1993), are like darkened keyholes to craft's strangely parallel life to fine art.

Most intriguing of all are the shots of illustrations from furniture and cabinetmakers' catalogs. Their strict functionality allows for more vigorous conjectural free play: The short middle limbs of a four-legged couch seem suddenly suggestive; the legs of an end table, drawn in poor perspective, flatten into a classic optical illusion (both 1992). In the one 1994 piece in the show, an illustration of a dressed window (from an 1896 proto-Ikea catalog) is anthropomorphized: A curtain of lozenges and stripes is upstaged by a leopard-spotted demishade peeking out from its lower half; behind, a windowpane stares blankly back at the viewer.

Though the conceptual apparatus of Fiskin's photos is as straightforward as the images themselves, slippage is provided by her audience: It's a function of our socially generated attraction to small blocks of information (be they tabloid headlines, sound bites, or Fiskin's pictures) and our desire for narrative, facilitated by our persistence of vision – our innate need to complete or create a story from available clues. Warmth is provided by Fiskin's removal of hard content, but also by our own nostalgia. This is, I think, why her Dingbats are so popular, especially in Los Angeles; by removing the burden of specificity from an ostensibly documentary activity, Fiskin creates the raw material of a shared history – like a family album without captions, or a postcard of a tree-lined street in a small town. Fiskin's "Art" photographs, though more academically illustrative of her strategy, perform similarly, by effortlessly blending the inconsequential into a comfortable canon. In a city where history doesn't stick, Fiskin demonstrates a model for a virtual cultural heritage.

– David A. Greene