An essay about Karen Rifas by Patricia Ortega-Miranda

The threshold as a poetic image and conceptual strategy in Karen Rifas's work

By Patricia Ortega-Miranda


This exhibition is given the task of distilling the central themes and elements traversing the artistic practice of Miami-based artist Karen Rifas. The works selected for the occasion reveal a continuous search for a language through which the artist investigates the endless potential that lies at the heart of all systems and structures. In her work, the line is simultaneously what organizes space as a connection between points, and an imaginary thread that creates a playful dynamic by establishing relationships. This interest in the different qualities of the line, its texture, and its structuring function, informed her early sculptures from the 1980s and 1990s. Finding inspiration in the work of post-minimalist artists, Rifas’ early explorations of traditional sculptural materials and processes altered the rigid appearance of a bronze metal beam while emphasizing its function as a construction material. Her sculptures retain and reveal the plasticity of the wax through the dents and soft marks imprinted by her hands in the act of molding, giving the metal an organic appearance through a gesture that recovers the essential quality of its matrix. (See Fig. 1) Uneven or irregular lines appear again in a series of drawings where the artist uses a hot metal point to burn the paper’s surface. These geometric and linear compositions refer to the space beyond the flat surface of the paper, creating a series of spatial relationships and conceptual images by evoking both the unfettered quality of fire and the strict path it might be suitable to follow.

Bronze sculpture by Karen Rifas
1.) Karen Rifas Untitled (bronze sculpture), 1989

In the work of Rifas, a line is always limit and possibility. Strung Out is a cord that hangs from a corner, forming a cat’s cradle string pattern that makes the dead end of the corner momentarily disappear. (Fig. 2) Through an optical trick, the work alters the experience of closure and finitude of physical boundaries by incorporating the shadows to form a figure that flattens the space, extending it infinitely. In her stitched-leaf installations the threading material also disappears, liberating the line from fixed spatial structures by connecting interior and exterior spaces and alluding to the patterns of nature as both random and ordered. (Fig. 7) Interventions such as Meetinghouse (2019) accentuate the unique elements of the gallery’s interior architecture to emphasize and bring awareness to the ambulatory experience of dwelling. Fields of color applied to entryways, arches and beams evoke a poetics of the threshold that enhances the experience of traversing or passing through a space. This is also evident in another corner piece installation titled Cube (2017), where the void that emerges through the juncture of two walls is used to create a deceptive image through the interactive play between two and three-dimensional spaces. Her paintings and sculptures never exist as self-contained objects, something that distinguishes her from other abstract or hard-edge painters who have remained working in a single medium. The dynamic play between her geometric paintings and sculptures privileges the spaces in-between, where structure allows infinite possibilities.

Artworks by Karen Rifas
2.) Strung Out, 2012. 3.) 360 Degrees Squared, 2000. 4.) Black Box, c. 1980 5.) 0424, 2021. 6.) Burnt Drawings 3, 1995 7.) More Time, More Time., 2022 8.) 0421, 2021. 9.) 3552, 2022.

Across her most recent body of work, the threshold appears as a poetic image and a conceptual strategy. Crossings and doublings activate the spaces in between, as in the optical game that results from the simultaneous sighting of #0421 and #0424. (Figs. 5 and 8) These paintings of an inversed composition engage the principle of the afterimage, which is the internal reversal of color value performed by the eyes after looking at an image fixedly for a few seconds. The effect occurs when the paintings are placed slightly separate from each other, as the afterimage is the residue product of a discontinuity that contains two opposites. These optical tricks and perceptual games have been the subject of her most recent body of work, where the artist activates the relation between viewer and space, often turning the exhibition room into a dynamic environment for play and discovery. Yet, her work engages tangentially with the prominent discourses of the body that came to define the nexus of conceptual and performance art practices during the 1970s and 1980s. When asked about her early formative artistic experiences, she recalls being a young girl and dancing in a room, feeling the space coming alive as an extension of her movements. Less concerned with the specificity of the body and more with the experience of space as an impossible destination, devoid of hierarchies, Rifas’ work submits no fixed path or direction. Space adopts the form and identity of the activities that shape it, turning the experience into its matrix, much like the word threshold itself, which designates the area at the entrance of a house but derives from the term “thresh”, the ancient activity of stamping heavily with the feet to separate the grain.


At a time when metaphors of passage and transgression codify our differences into trenchant categories, Rifas’ work invites us to consider the threshold both as a conceptual figure and a space that can be temporarily inhabited to challenge accustomed visions. In her work with the found object, the artist engages a kind of archaeological practice of cultural excavation, combining everyday items from secondhand stores to exert a social or political critique. Stripped from their apparent innocence, they cease to be mere discarded objects to become agents of meaning, passively participating in ideologies of oppression and violence. A threshold is then a place where resignification occurs not as a replacement of one meaning for another, but as a temporary strategy that is activated through scathing humor and unexpected irony. These strategies always seem to acknowledge both the frameworks where meaning is produced and what lies beyond them. Entitled, her most recent intervention in a gallery space, celebrates and re-imagines feminism as a meeting space. Alluding to the double act of giving something a title and a right, the title of the work pokes fun at the adopted tendency of much postmodern art to leave works untitled in order to prevent too stable of an interpretation. Rifas ironizes such ambiguities by providing a physical and symbolic space for a reunion where meaning is not self-contained. Separated from the gallery’s center space through a glass wall, the small room remains enclosed and open. The solemnity conveyed through the placement of a flag with an emblem figure on its pole alludes to the unifying principles able to sustain a feminist consciousness. Yet, the bold pink lines on the flag extending into the walls and bench, and the rhythmic cadence of female voices reciting women’s names coming from the audio resist iconic representations, privileging instead the individual interactions and personal stories that give rise to a shared sense of identity.


In Rifas the artist, there is also the anthropologist and the collector, a tireless pursuer of forms and patterns who holds space for the unexpected lurking in the threshold, a place of infinite possibilities that, like her mirror installations, is always in relation to another place. (Fig. 3) The lines on the mirrors tracing the square patterns from her house’s floor subvert the function of that domestic vanity object inextricably associated with notions of beauty and femininity, to remind us that a mirror is always already a frame. An even more foundational work produced for a class taught by her late friend and professor Robert Huff is a black plexiglass box with abstract cutout shapes hidden inside. (Fig. 4) This modular sculpture is a geometric grid of twelve squares, containing shapes of primary colors. Each square is also an individual door, making the unity into a compartmentalized whole. This game of endless possibilities, which prevents the viewer from absorbing the entire object from one single point of view, like a painting, can be considered Rifas’ first conceptual statement, as it speaks about the internal and often imperceptible forms that organize external spatial structures. The dynamic spaces resulting from the artist’s use of design as a tool for experimentation reveal the tensions between repetition and variation, where seriality is also a function of chance and play.


The work of Karen Rifas eludes easy reference to artists of her generation, acting more as a bridge or connector between different artistic trends and discourses. Post-minimalism, conceptual and land art, and hard-edge abstraction merge and come into dialogue through her own unique approach to each of these traditions. In 1985 Rifas was using leaves from oak trees in her backyard in works such as “Ancient Rituals of a Lost Civilization”, working under the principles of feminist and environmental art of the 1970s and 80s and creating site-specific installations that rejected the object-based economy perpetuated by the art market. Her interest in environmental art led to the research topic for her master thesis, which focused on the work of land artists from England and their gentler treatment of nature, as opposed to their American counterparts, who would often bulldoze or completely transform large pieces of land. Rifas’ interest in particular artistic practices and discourses, and their influence on her work, cannot be understood without acknowledging the critical distance she always takes from them in order to generate new critical categories. For example, the geometric arrangements of organic elements such as tree leaves suggest an intentional disruption of binary categories that divide structure from nature, turning the word “environment” on its head by implying not the location of nature but the order and fluidity shaping all spaces. 


A central figure in the artistic scene of Miami, Rifas’s teaching practice and multiple collaborations have sustained and nurtured her work, uplifting her community through her support of independent and alternative art projects and galleries, and advocating for the importance of keeping local art alive in what is one of the most diverse cultural enclaves of our times.  





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