Some Questions of Aesthetics

How much is still to be disentangled, freed! - Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas (1871)

We like books with lots of dreck in them. - One of the dwarves in Donald Barthelme's Snow White

One century's democratic culture turned out to be another's dreck. Walt Whitman's vision of a birth of democratic art forms in America dissolved and in its place appeared a decidedly undemocratic divide between high culture and kitsch. At least this was the view that took its most influential form in Clement Greenberg's 1939 essay, "Avant Garde and Kitsch." For him, and for other champions of the Modernist vision of art, these were the two realms of culture in a post-industrial society, the former noble and the latter debased. As society became increasingly urbanized, folk or vernacular culture was being wiped out, like the rural landscape from which it emerged.

Or was it? From a different angle, the state of post-industrial culture doesn't look so tidy. Can't kitsch become art if it is given a different context? That is what Pop and a good deal of art since has successfully demonstrated. Doesn't vernacular expression simply take different forms in an urban milieu? That is what a painting like Edward Ruscha's Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas (1963), taking its cue from the Precisionism of Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler, vividly illustrates. Ruscha's painting begs its own interesting questions: is the design of the gas station architectural dreck? Or did it simply need to be interpreted anew for the viewer to see it anew? The status of such things as mass-produced commercial architecture and suburban tract housing remains uncertain, a richly ambivalent territory in American culture. And no artist has explored this territory with more persistence than Judy Fiskin.

She has been mapping this terrain for some 15 years, ever since she created a series of photographs of Los Angeles stucco houses between 1973 and 1976. Succeeding series, such as More Stucco (1978-79), Dingbats (1982), Some Aesthetic Decisions (1984) and My Trip to New York (1986), have revealed just how fertile this terrain can be for image-making. But it was with the images of Stucco that Fiskin's format, subject and style cohered.

The photographs in this series are tiny, a little more than two inches in width and length. The subject is pictured head on, making the facade the central focus. The world within these diminutive rectangles and squares has a stark appearance: the sky is a bleached-out white; the facade itself is a series of highly contrasting dark and light geometric components. The surrounding buildings and the foreground landscape provide a bit of breathing space' between the featured subject and the thick, dark edge of the print.

The very size of her prints, coupled with the expanse of white space which surround each – the picture is approximately two and one-half inches wide or tall and the photographic paper six by eight inches – creates an additional effect. For the images are akin to little specimens in an ongoing study, a kind of display case of images. There are no people present, no bustle of daily life evident in these images. Like a butterfly in a case, the building has been removed from its context for us to scrutinize at length.

Of course, underlying any process of cataloging is a passion for the thing being collected. Fiskin has dubbed her art a "photographic rescue mission" and I find that an apt description. For it forces one to ask: rescued from what?

From the ashheap of the unaesthetic I would argue. From this perspective, the Dingbat series appears central to Fiskin's mission. For her subject here, oddball Los Angeles apartment buildings dating largely from the 1950s and 1960s, is even more assertively removed from any norms of high architectural taste than stucco houses.

Consider an example from the Dingbat series, in which a white rectangle of an apartment house, sporting an ornamental checkerboard style pattern, is her subject. The building itself is almost invisible at first, creating a curious effect in which the ornamental pattern, shaped like a sideways "T," seems to float in space. (Levitating along with it are the address numerals on the left and another decoration, a semiabstract star, on the right.) Gradually, the building comes into focus, as does the subterranean parking garage dimmed by shadow. The horizontally aligned rectangle of the apartment house rests almost directly in the middle of the vertical of the picture itself. A tree sits precisely in the middle of the building as well as the image, emphasizing the perfect symmetry of the photograph.

There is a highly classical sense of order in this picture, and it lends the eccentric architectural specimen a dignity, even a beauty, it does not inherently possess. Placing it on display, then, Fiskin also transforms it. Although it may look wrong as architecture, it looks right in a photograph. At the same time, by virtue of their size, her pictures seems to possess at best a tenuous relationship to photography of any kind. It is as if they are mind's eye images, projected on the wall – or, as Fiskin phrases it, on "the scale of the imagination."

Her style of picture making has clear precedents. Ruscha's own photographs of Los Angeles buildings, parking lots and the like are an obvious source. Another evident influence, which Fiskin readily acknowledges, is the photography of Walker Evans. In the classic series, American Photographs, first exhibited and published as a book in 1938, the beautifully composed images of architectural facades lend a stateliness to the most humble kind of South Carolina churches.

Like Evans, Fiskin wants to find a way to fix our gaze on vernacular architecture, to present it without editorializing overtly about its merits or defects. But Fiskin's sensibility is very different from either Ruscha's or Evans'. The photographic books by Ruscha are about banality, either as a conceptual framework for a series (Every Building on the Sunset Strip) or as a central characteristic of our contemporary environment (Thirty four Parking Lots in Los Angeles, A Few Palm Trees, etc.). In American Photographs, Evans strived to create pictures which, in microcosmic fashion, created a portrait of a people and a nation. Fiskin's leitmotif is the nature of taste. She is consistently finding forms of expression which run contrary to her sensibility – that is, the sensibility of one versed in art history (Fiskin earned a Master degree in that field).

She found another of those contrary realms in home and flower shows. At both, the displays are self-consciously "artful," but by and large they are eccentric and often downright awkward. These "exhibits" became the main subject of the series, Some Aesthetic Decisions. Look, for instance, at one photograph in which an arrangement of dried grass, shaped like a wreath with stray ends, dangles from flowers rising out of a tiki vase. The composition exudes a serene presence within the photograph. But scrutinize the image too closely and you are likely to notice the tacky backdrop, the inappropriate pedestal and the haphazard nature of the arrangement itself. Or gaze upon the ornate pyramidal arrangement of roses in white vases with a bouquet of flowers at the top and bottom for accent. The symmetry is absolutely perfect. Indeed, as in so many others among Fiskin's photographs, the chosen subject makes for a compelling picture. Yet the floral arrangement itself is so garishly elaborate, the design of the vases so awkward.

The energy that animates Some Aesthetic Decisions is a strong undercurrent of ambivalence. Clearly, Fiskin is simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by these arrangements of flowers and the like. Much the same attitude pervades her Portraits of Furniture, a small series devoted to objects from museum period rooms. Though legitimized by curators, these items look no less eccentric to the contemporary eye: a curvaceous Victorian sofa, for example, or a pair of ornate dressers, one squat and the other tall. (The latter example is absolutely true to the term "portrait," since it is anthropomorphic in a comical fashion. One dresser looks like the child of the other.)

There seems to be no end to the number of things appropriate to a Fiskin photograph. Houses from the New Jersey shoreline, Queens and Brooklyn look entirely right within the tiny frames of her pictures. So, too, do a variety of buildings in an ongoing series entitled New Architecture. At the heart of Fiskin's enterprise is a belief in the transformative power of photography. The persuasive picture, her work asserts, can make kitsch objects or offbeat architecture into images worthy of aesthetic contemplation. Fiskin demonstrates this in series after series. In her world of miniature images, there is room for many things. Beyond the accepted vistas of art, Fiskins photographs insist, there is much territory left to chart.

– Robert L. Pincus

1. On the history of a vernacular cultural tradition in the United States, see John A. Kouenhoven, The Arts in Modern American Civilization (1948; New York: W.W. Norton & Co.), 1967.
2. See William Bartram, ed. Judy Fiskin (Los Angeles: A.R.T. Press), 1988, pp. 3-25, for an interview with the artist conducted by photographer John Divola.