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Karen Rifas’s Ladder: an undeniable win for Miami

Karen Rifas wins The Michael Richards Award; so does Miami's art scene. The fact that her career attains this recognition signals the scene's strength.

By Tyler Emerson-Dorsch

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I. Karen Rifas receives a fantastic accolade

As her gallery representatives, Brook and I are so happy for Karen Rifas that she received The Michael Richards award. What a tremendous accolade!

Karen Rifas‘s hard work, persistence, generous spirit, experimentation and canny eye brought her to this high point.  Brook and I congratulate Karen for this recognition of her life of work in art, and we are proud to have the chance to work with her along with so many other passionate and creative professionals.

Rifas’s move into an expanded color palette only three years ago was symbolic of breaking free of restraints, both in herself and in her art history. Her architectural spaces, once created with cords and leaves, are as ambitious as ever, only the vivid colors and solid planes she so beautifully employs help us to take notice.

This award draws national attention to her work and brings with it great opportunities. We are thankful to Oolite Arts and very excited for what lies ahead.

About The Michael Richards Award:

Oolite Arts’ Michael Richards Award recognizes a visual artist whose practice has achieved high level professional distinction and is based in Miami. The award calls for national attention – already announcements of its recipient appear in the national art press. Nationally recognized curators and visual arts leaders comprise the jury. The award comes with a significant cash award of $75,000. The Bass Museum commits to give the award recipient an exhibition within the next year.

The Award’s impact:

There are two sides to this award. It recognizes Karen Rifas’s achievements, crystallized in her exquisite exhibition last year at the Bass Museum of Art. It also highlights the kinds of opportunities that help to support an artist’s career. Rifas’ statement when she received the award suggests that she was thinking of this as well – that it takes a village. She said: “This is an honor for the whole community. It’s the story of my being able to succeed as an artist here, to be educated here, work here, make art here, and teach many of the people who are working artists in Miami today.”

 

Installation view of Karen Rifas' leaf and cord installation at the 2005 South Florida Cultural Consortium exhibition at NSU Art Museum.
Karen Rifas I'm Dancing' As Fast As I Can, 2005. Leaf and cord installation at NSU Art Museum during the New Art South Florida exhibition that year.

“This is an honor for the whole community. It’s the story of my being able to succeed as an artist here, to be educated here, work here, make art here, and teach many of the people who are working artists in Miami today.”

Installation image of drawing installation by Karen Rifas at Bridge Red
Installation view of INKarnation, a two woman show with Karen Rifas and Kerry Phillips at Bridge Red in 2013. Photo credit F. Casale. Courtesy Bridge Red.

II. A Career Made in Miami    

Indeed, Karen Rifas built her entire career in Miami, and that is remarkable. Most Miami-based artists who achieve this level have left this city to make a mark in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Paris or Berlin, and come back. She moved to Miami when she was 12 years old and met her future husband at Ponce de Leon Junior High School. While she was raising a family she was taking art classes at Kendall campus of what was then Miami Dade Community College, now MDC. She had good teachers, among them the late Robert Huff. As soon as her daughter got her drivers’ license, she signed up for a Bachelors of Fine Art track at the University of Miami’s Department of Art, where she later got her Masters of Fine Art. She focused on making installations that combined bronze sculptures with organic materials. She began building her exhibition history in 1987.

Her exhibition record maps the many shifting players in the Miami art scene, as she garnered support from galleries, institutions and small artist-run spaces, many of which have changed or closed over the years. If all goes well, the focus of her exhibition history will be her institutional shows, as it should be. Each one of these were important steps and achievements. Here I’m going to sketch out how Karen and I read through her CV recently with an eye toward Miami’s art history, which is created in the interplay between the people and institutions.

In her early career, Gloria Luria gave Rifas her first gallery show. Several other galleries would be important and repeated outlets for her artwork and development. Art Center South Florida, now Oolite Arts, provided a more experimental venue in 1990, and she showed there at least seven times. Her decades long collaboration with dancer and choreographer Dale Andre began there. Through one of her teachers Ron Fondaw, Rifas worked with Patrick Dougherty on an immersive exhibition at North Miami Center of Contemporary Art in 1991. COCA, now MOCA North Miami, also provided a great deal of exhibition opportunities to many emerging artists. Sheldon Lurie gave Rifas shows at two of MDC’s galleries. Art critics Elisa Turner, Helen Kohen, both art critics for The Miami Herald (which is no longer a dedicated position),  and later Anne Tschida for KnightArts Blog (now closed) and The Biscayne Times wrote about Rifas’s work many times. Nicole Doran and Hunter Braithwaite wrote for The Miami Rail. Others who wrote reviews were Janet Batet for El Nuevo Herald, which gave the articles generous space, and Alfredo Triff for The Miami New Times.

She taught at Kendall Campus (where Robert Huff was chair), the University of Miami and New World School of the Arts, and, in subsequent years she in turn supported her students, doing studio visits and attending their shows. Her students are now artists and art professionals like Adrienne Chadwick, Nicole Doran, Tomm El-Saiah, Alejandro Contreras, Rafael Domenech, Loriel Beltran, Adler Guerrier, Ibett Yanez del Castillo, Zachary Balber, and Luis Gispert, to name a few. She and her husband Harold are a familiar presence at all the art events around town, and their support of artists here is palpable.

Her students and peers have curated her work into thoughtful and impactful exhibitions. William Cordova has a talent for making formal, poetic and conceptual connections visible in his group exhibitions, which show work by Miami-based artists. He includes Rifas’s work in many of these shows. She was in an iconic show called globe – Miami – island, curated by Robert Chambers, who was her classmate at Kendall and later UM, at The Bass in 2001, the year Art Basel Miami Beach was cancelled. Adler Guerrier included Rifas in a show on view now at Fundación Atchugarry, and Ibett Yanez will include Rifas in a group show as part of Casa Cor this December.

The role of these connections can make a difference at all stages in a career. Robert Thiele gave Rifas her first drawing show at Bridge Red in 2013. This show gave Rifas the confidence to experiment with new modes and forms at a time when she felt limited to the leaf and cord installations for which she was so well-known. This show flowed to another at Under the Bridge, run by Lou Anne Colodny, who was the founder of COCA. This show paired cord installations and solid color painted shapes on the wall, a format related to the drawings from the previous show.

At meetinghouse, a penthouse space run by Philip Bonnery, Moira Holohan and Veruska Vasconez in a historic building downtown, Rifas expanded her color palette for the first time in decades. Up until this point, with the exception of a series of readymade sculptures, Rifas’s palette was earthy or, as in the drawings, based in Bauhaus colors. It was significant, then, that she intervened in the dark brown and white space with careful application of pink and black paint on particular architectural elements. The introduction of pink was dramatic and deeply symbolic for Rifas, constituting another breakthrough.

In the year that followed she created a large body of new paintings on paper in an explosion of vivid color. She showed this series at Emerson Dorsch with an installation that echoed the forms on paper. The following year, Sylvia Karman Cubiña, Director at The Bass Museum of Art, gave her the most perfect room there to create her vivid world. The resulting exhibition was exquisite, her best to date. What lent this exhibition its power was that its worked emerged from a lifetime of making work in this particular scene, an intersection of museums, galleries and artist-run spaces. By navigating so much of it, Rifas developed art work that was appealing to so many who see it, from those new to art to those who are in it for life.

It takes an ecosystem of supportive peers, institutions and intermediaries like galleries and independent curators to make an art scene that can build an artist’s entire career. Dr. Jane Chu, former chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts, said that a healthy art scene requires multiple rungs in its ladder. The Michael Richards award shows how these rungs are coming together to form a ladder. We congratulate Karen for this recognition of her life of work in art, and we are proud to have the chance to work with her along with so many other passionate and creative professionals. Thank you Oolite Arts for shining a light on artists’ achievements with the conviction of serious investment.

III. The state of the ladder

This has developed into a long examination, since it is clear that Miami’s ladder is healthy and well, with a multitude of opportunities and services for artists at all levels. They are of course different from when Karen made her way. It is even different than I expected at the outset of this article. And so an overview of Miami’s art scene will be published soon as another post.

The primary sources for this essay are conversations with Karen Rifas about her recollections of the stand out exhibitions in her Curriculum Vitae on the occasion of receiving the Michael Richards Award. Karen Rifas’ quote was published in Oolite Arts press release and was reprinted in the artforum.com news announcement of the award. I would like to develop this essay further, but, in the interest of timeliness, I sought to publish this first pass now. A more art historical approach will ideally cite the writers mentioned here, delve into the artist’s archive and would also include the role of other awards that support South Florida artists. The fact that I have so much to write about seems to call for the help of a chronicler…

When possible I will write a Part II about the role of institutional shows and private collections in Karen Rifas’s ladder. A review of Miami-based art in these platforms will be a part of that.

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