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ART REVIEWS : Fiskin's Transcendental Photography

October 27, 1994|SUSAN KANDEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Judy Fiskin's tiny black-and-white photographs, each no more than a few inches square, purport to document things: the architectural vernacular particular to the New Jersey shore, flower arrangements by hobbyists, L.A.'s "dingbat" apartment houses, pieces of overstuffed furniture.

One can read the work as a parody of Conceptual art, with its penchant for complete inventories and totalizing logic. Yet Fiskin's mock-classification system is too tender-hearted to really work that way.

Her photographs enshrine those things that have been chalked up as mistakes, idiosyncrasies and examples of poor timing. By rendering them in miniature, Fiskin ensures that we approach them closely, awarding them the kind of loving attention we normally reserve for more intimate encounters.

In a group of new photographs from the series "More Art," now at Patricia Faure Gallery, Fiskin is interested in those objects whose institutional status as art is ordinarily suspect: a piece of American mourning embroidery, a l9th-Century sandpaper painting, a wax effigy, etc.

What Fiskin photographs, however, are not the objects themselves, but illustrations of them taken from archival materials. Represented as black-and-white photographs of representations, they are doubly affectless. Even their kitsch value is as dubious as their aesthetic merit.

Liberated from the treacheries of both high art and low, these objects become surprisingly evocative, even elegant. Circumscribed by Fiskin's tight framing, and neat black picture frames, they hint at the ways in which photography permits all sorts of things to transcend themselves.

* Patricia Faure Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., Bergamot Station, Santa Monica, (310) 449-1479, through Nov. 12. Closed Sundays and Mondays. *

Bunny Mischief: "El Dorado," Nayland Blake's new show at Christopher Grimes Gallery, features a cavalcade of adorable stuffed bunny rabbits engaged in everything from run-of-the-mill licentiousness to organized mayhem.

One bunny sits in the corner, merrily smearing feces on the wall. Another rapes his double in a wintry forest. A trio of bunnies armed with rifles prepares to execute a blindfolded ex-comrade. A decapitated bunny head is stored in the refrigerator, presumably a victim of the Jeffrey Dahmer of rabbits.

There is a certain macabre charm to a toy rabbit wielding a knife or carting around a coffin. But it's a stretch to find more meaning here than in a hip novelty store's Halloween window.

The artist is best known for stainless-steel bondage sculptures, which evoke all manner of lurid narratives with admirable clinical detachment. This new work comes out of his interest in glove-puppets and marionettes, which operate in the strange space between prop and actor: They are characters, yet wholly subject to another's control.

Blake used marionettes to dazzling effect in a 1991 piece based on the Marquis de Sade's "Philosophy in the Bedroom." He urged the viewer to play puppet master, thus exchanging the role of voyeur for something far more active--and dangerous.

Here, however, Blake seems to be at a loss. Perhaps the problem is that he ignores the riskiness of appropriating materials or themes closely associated with another artist. After Mike Kelley, it is difficult to use stuffed animals even if your purpose is to lampoon him (which I don't think Blake's is).

Blake has selected his creatures according to different criteria: His are brand-new, affectless bunnies, quite unlike Kelley's hand-made, down-on-their-luck fetishes. Yet if all Blake's work conjures is nostalgia for Kelley's ability to use mute objects to articulate complex ideas, something has gone very wrong. This show is a disappointment.

* Christopher Grimes Gallery, 916 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 587-3373, through Nov. 26. Closed Sundays and Mondays. *

Desert Narratives: For 20 years, photographer Richard Misrach has been involved in an epic exploration of the American desert--its terrain, its light, the fires that ravage it, the garbage left by its despoilers. With "Desert Canto XVIII," he produces the most distilled photographs of his career.

Misrach points his camera upward and shoots the desert sky at night or at daybreak, seen from vantage points as varied as the salt flats of Utah or a brothel in Nevada. The photographs are devastatingly beautiful.

A violet and yellow morning sky is as lusciously tart as a popsicle. Another's muted tones of gray and mauve are as indistinguishable as the notes of a glissando. A sky at dusk is a burst of orange dissolving into black.

It is immensely difficult to negotiate such beauty. Beauty is so complete that it resists all commentary, yet is so subjective that it poses the question of agency: In whose voice does natural beauty speak?

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