Los Angeles

Judy Fiskin

Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art

Few contemporary artists so confound the difference between content and subject matter as does photographer Judy Fiskin. Her vantage as a photographer and the imagery of her photographs, which have ranged in subject matter from desert landscapes, to frontal shots of Los Angeles’ indigenous residential architecture, to an about-to-be-demolished amusement park, and back to these stucco houses, have remained fairly constant. Consistently unpopulated and taken from a distance, these pictures embody detachment. Their size, always quite small (about 23/4-inch-square black and white images on 6-by-8 inch paper), reasserts their detachment: though they posit a hand-held scale they contain too much, too realistically, to be miniatures. Rather, they are compressions, distillations, pluperfect souvenirs, visions from the mind’s eye.

In the “Long Beach Series” Fiskin concentrated on “The Pike,” a downtown turn-of-the-century amusement park slated for removal in favor of high-rise office buildings. These photos come perilously close to infusing sentiment into her otherwise clinically dispassionate method. Content almost prevails in the work, in part because of the exotic pleasure machines Fiskin chose to photograph; though deserted and forlorn, the park as carnival and its induced lapses into childishness nearly overwhelm her vision.

The newer suite, “More Stucco,” brings Fiskin back onto familiar ground, and with an even more severe attitude toward what she has chosen to depict. Rigorously frontal, the pictures are uniformly composed—foreground, stucco facade, background. No single one of the houses is especially noteworthy; within the context of Los Angeles, they form the fabric of its older areas. Unusual for Los Angeles. however, is the conspicuous absence of cars within Fiskin’s selected scenery. Almost no automobiles—the ubiquitous symbols of the city’s rhythm—are to be seen in this quintessentially Los Angeles–sensibility work; whatever the reason, either because of their obvious anthropomorphism or their historical specificity, they have been banished.

For all its careful scrutiny of detail, Fiskin’s imagery is decidedly ahistorical. Whereas I had previously thought her work to be somehow about time, in the face of this work it seems more plausible to connect it with a fundamental concern for light. Her earlier photographs capture the two extremes of California light—the unmodulated, palpable glare of the desert, and, in Long Beach, the refracted corporeality of beach light. Different sections of Los Angeles exist simultaneously under each, and large parts of the city under a mixture of the two; the images from “More Stucco” generally appear to be in the fluctuating vortex where the two overlap.

Fiskin’s work has always been at odds with the prevalent photographic orthodoxies of the area, always more at home in the company of the plastic arts. Perhaps her photographs are a kind of idealized sculpture: tableaux inhabited by atmospherics rather than people, places defined above all by their ambient light, intelligible as visual catalysts only—their locale somewhere between experience, prescience, and reality.

Richard Armstrong