Set the table? Let us count the ways:
"Fifty Ways to Set the Table," a 26-minute video by Judy Fiskin documenting a peculiar LA County Fair event known as the "Tablescaping Competition," begins with a dry excoriation by the event's two female judges. Apparently, one poor contestant's decorative beads don't drape properly.
"They're all stiff and wiry," one judge points out, "like the kind you would use in crafts, it they're going to have beads, they ought to have like the Jackie Kennedy beads [on another table], the long pearls, you know? You can get yards of old pearls in craft shops that just" - she makes an arcing gesture and a shhhhew sound - "drape."
"Detracts from elegance," the other inscribes on an evaluation form, articulating the syllables slowly as she writes. "De-tracts."
Such flaws would seem to abound. The cloth on the next table, the judges note, is "so white it makes the salt look off-white," and on the following table - well, they "would have chosen different flatware."
In trailing these women - who are, to be fair, neither as old nor as prickly as their initial comments might suggest through the gaudy archipelago of tables that constitutes 2001 competition Fiskin enters into a sphere of American culture all but ignored by the sophisticates of the urban art world. Her video, which had its the debut last fail at New York's Museum of Modern Art, is now at the Angles Gallery.
Adrift in a cavernous exhibition hall and bordered by a white picket fence, the display is a decidedly homespun affair but one that offers testament to the persistence or the creative impulse. In a city with more than its share of high-paid caterers and party planners, the enthusiasm with which these nonprofessionals set about designing and constructing their settings - gastronomical installations, they might be called is a truly refreshing sight.
The first segment of the video (after the aforementioned prologue) focuses primarily on the participants themselves as they unpack their crates and carefully assemble their tables. There are six categories in the competition - Valentine, Magic, Sports, Lion King, Vineyard and Country Christmas. We get a taste of each, pausing frequently to observe noteworthy details, such as the tiny black beads one woman substitutes for caviar or the mock rawhide menu that a man has constructed for his Lion King spread.
In the second segment, we rejoin the two judges and follow them through the elaborate process of assessment and appraisal leading to the selection of best of show, a task they approach with an appealing mix of reverence and humor. Fiskin, for her part, is inconspicuous. She stays carefully outside the frame (despite the judges' occasional solicitations of her opinion), avoids any sort of commentary and keeps artistic embellishments to a bare minimum.
As in her photographic work - a nice selection of which is displayed alongside the video - she achieves a tone that is dry, even deadpan, without coming across as detached or sarcastic. More important, she gives her subjects their due, honoring their endeavors with an appreciation that is neither patronizing nor unduly romantic.
Unlike much of Judy Chicago's recent work, which reflects a similar interest in domestic crafts and populist traditions but suffers from a cloying sentimentality and a bloated sense of self-importance, "Fifty Ways to Set the Table" offers a genuine glimpse into the soul of America. The video moves beyond the more spectacle of kitsch to approach the questions of why we make art and how we go about evaluating it.
- Holly Myers