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 the artist’s continuous search for a language that investigates the endless and expansive potential of systems and structures. In her work, the line is simultaneously what organizes space, as it connects different points, and an imaginary thread that creates playful dynamics by establishing relationships. This interest in the different qualities of the line, its texture and 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 alter the rigid appearance of bronze metal beams while emphasizing their function as construction material. Her sculptures retain and reveal the plasticity of the wax through the dents and soft marks imprinted with her hands in the act of molding, giving the metal an organic appearance while retaining the plasticity of its matrix. (Image 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. (Image 2) 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 that evoke both the unfettered quality of fire and the directional path it follows.
In the work of Rifas, a line is always limit and possibility. In Strung Out (2011) a cord hangs from a corner, forming a cat’s cradle string pattern that makes the spatial dead end momentarily disappear. (Image 3) Through an optical trick, this work alters the experience of closure and finitude of physical boundaries by accentuating the string’s shadows. The new angles and patterns that form on the walls result in the flattening of the three-dimensional space while extending it infinitely. In a reversal to this optical strategy, her stitched-leaves installations possess a kinetic quality that makes the connecting threads disappear. As a result, the line is liberated from fixed spatial structures, interior and exterior spaces become inextricably linked, and the patterns of nature appear at once ordered and random. (Image 4) Site-specific interventions such as Meetinghouse (2016) explore the unique elements of the gallery’s interior architecture to emphasize and bring awareness to the ambulatory experience of dwelling. The fields of color applied to entryways, arches and beams evoke a poetics of the threshold and activate the act of traversing and passing through. (Image 5) A similar dynamic is at work in another corner piece installation, this one titled Cube (2018). Here, two squared flat fields of colored vinyl laminated in one of the room’s corners and above a three-dimensional cube of the same color create the illusion of spatial continuity. (Image 6) Rifas’ 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 produces seriality and continuity.
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 (2022). (Images 7 and 8) In these two paintings the artist performed a color inversion, engaging the principle of the afterimage, the internal reversal occurring in the retina when staring fixedly at an image for a few seconds. The illusion is more effective if the paintings are observed slightly apart from each other, as the afterimage is the residue product of a discontinuity containing two perfect opposites. Such optical tricks and perceptual games have been the subject of Rifas’ most recent body of work, where she activates the relation between viewer and space, often turning the exhibition room into a dynamic environment for play and discovery (Image 9). Still, one might say that her work engages only tangentially 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, the artist 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 turn 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 (2022), her most recent intervention in a gallery space, celebrates and re-imagines feminism as a meeting space. (Image 10) Alluding to the double act of giving something a title and a right, the work pokes fun at the 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, opening up spaces of infinite possibilities that, like her mirrors pieces, are always in relation to another place. (Image 11) The geometric lines on the mirrors retrace the grout patterns between tiles in the artist’s home, subverting the function of the quintessential domestic vanity object associated with notions of beauty and femininity, and reminding us that a mirror is always already a frame. An even more foundational work is a black plexiglass box with abstract cutout shapes hidden inside, created while a student of college professor Robert Huff. (Image 12) Black Box, (1980) is a modular sculpture, a geometric grid of twelve squares containing flat plexiglass shapes of primary colors. Each square is also an individual door, which makes the unity into a compartmentalized whole, a game of endless possibilities that prevents the viewer from absorbing the entire object from one single point of view. An early exploration of geometric and organic forms, this work can also 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 subordinated to chance and play.
The work of Karen Rifas eludes easy reference to artists of her generation, acting more as a bridge or connector between multiple artistic trends and aesthetic discourses. Post-minimalism, conceptual and land art, and hard-edge abstraction merge and come into dialogue through her own unique approach to each one of these traditions. In 1985, for example, Rifas was using leaves from oak trees gathered from her backyard in combination with her metal sculptures. Later pieces such as Ancient Rituals of a Lost Civilization (1988) respond to the principles of feminist and environmental art, as they are site-specific installations that resist the object-based economy of 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 distance she always takes from them, as a way to generate new critical categories. This comes across in her geometric arrangements of organic elements, where the artist disrupts binary categories separating structure from nature, turning the word “environment” on its head by implying not the location of nature but the simultaneous order and fluidity of space.
In recent years, the artist has turned to hard-edge geometric abstraction, producing an on-going series of paintings that explore the middle-path between pictorial space and three-dimensionality. This is achieved by bringing line and color into a playful interaction. Her dynamic compositions result from what seems like a game of variations, where the act of removing or adding lines mimics that of subtle changes of color through the mixing of paint (Image 13). Her color palette goes from dark hues of primary colors to loud and luminous fluorescents, to subdued soft pastels, spanning the entire spectrum of South Florida’s atmospheric and urban landscape. Within this endless game of variations emerge a series of compositions made of painted wooden blocks, where the geometric plane and the colors’ flatness take on dimension in the physical space. The first time I saw these works, they were placed together on the worktable in Rifas’ studio. It looked like a city maquette, and it made me think of how much cities look like toys when they are seen from above. Boardgames came to mind again, but also virtual space, which is reconfigured here as relief. The virtual recuperates its physical texture and its original meaning, that of being the force or will of something, its intrinsic potential (Image 14).
Karen Rifas is undoubtedly an artist of her time. Yet sometimes her work seems to come to us from the future. But a future holding the past like the dream of a falling leaf lasting a lifetime. To Weave a Threshold reveals the proliferating nature of an artistic practice that turns its own rules into opportunities for liberation, as it dwells endlessly in this subtle but mischievous gesture. A central figure in the artistic scene of Miami, Rifas’ 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.