Special to the Biscayne Times
This past October, Oolite Arts awarded 44 Miami-based individual artists awards for projects and travel at the second annual Ellie Awards ceremony. The 2019 Michael Richards Award, a lifetime-achievement award, went to Karen Rifas. As her gallerists, Brook Dorsch and I congratulate Rifas for this recognition of her life of work in art, as well as her persistence, generous spirit, experimentation, and canny eye.
Rifas moved into an expanded color palette only three years ago — a shift that was symbolic of breaking free of restraints, both in herself and in her art history. Her architectural spaces, once created with cords and dried leaves, remain as ambitious as ever; the vivid colors and solid planes she now employs help us to take notice. The Michael Richards Award recognizes a Miami-based visual artist whose practice has achieved a high level of professional distinction. It was created as a tribute to Michael Richards (1963-2001), a provocative and poetic artist whose body of work primarily addresses racial inequity and social injustice. An alum of Oolite Arts (formerly ArtCenter/South Florida), Richards died in his art studio in the World Trade Center during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The jury comprises local and national curators and arts experts, and the award comes with a sig- ni cant cash prize of $75,000. The Bass Museum also commits to give the recipient an exhibition within the next year.
“The Ellies celebrate the individual artists who are the backbone of Miami’s visual arts community,” according to Oolite. And Rifas acknowledged that
“village” when she received the award. “This is an honor for the whole community,” she said. “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.”
Indeed, Rifas has built her entire career in Miami. She moved here when she was 12 and met her future husband at Ponce de Leon Middle School. While she was raising a family, she took art classes at the Kendall campus of what was then Miami-Dade Community College, now Karen Rifas, one of our most celebrated artists, has worked in Miami her entire career. She had good teachers, among them the late Robert Huff. As soon as her daughter got a driver’s license, Rifas says, she enrolled at the University of Miami, where she later received a master of arts degree. She focused on making installations that combined bronze sculptures with organic materials, and had her first exhibition in 1987. Her exhibition history maps the many shifting players in the Miami art scene as she won notice and then support from galleries, institutions, and small artist-run spaces, a number of which have changed, moved, or closed over the years. If all goes well, the focus of her exhibition history will be her institutional shows, as it should be.
I recently sat down with Rifas and we went through her résumé, with an eye to tracing Miami’s art history through the interplay between the people and institutions.
In Rifas’s early career, Gloria Luria presented her first gallery show. Several other galleries were also important and repeated outlets for her artwork and development. ArtCenter/South Florida provided a more experimental venue in 1990, and Rifas 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 sculptor Patrick Dougherty on an immersive exhibition at North Miami Center of Contemporary Art (COCA) in 1991. COCA, now MOCA North Miami, also provided exhibition opportunities to many emerging artists. Sheldon Lurie gave Rifas shows at two of MDC’s galleries. She showed at the Miami-Dade Public Library many times. Her works were reviewed in numerous publications, including the Miami Herald , El Nuevo Herald, Miami Rail, Miami New Times, the Knight Arts blog, and here, in the pages of Biscayne Times.
Rifas taught at MDC’s Kendall campus, the University of Miami, and New World School of the Arts. In subsequent years, she supported her own 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 2001 show, “globe — Miami — island,” curated by Robert Chambers, her classmate at Kendall and later UM, at the Bass in 2001, when Art Basel Miami Beach’s inaugural event was canceled after the 9/11 attacks. Adler Guerrier has included Rifas in a show currently on view at Fundación Atchugarry, and Ibett Yanez is including Rifas in a group show as part of Casa Cor Miami this month.
Connections such as these can make a huge difference at all stages in a career. Robert Thiele gave Rifas her first drawing show at North Miami’s Bridge Red in 2013. This show gave Rifas the condense to experiment with new modes and forms at a time when, she says, she felt limited to the leaf and cord installations for which she was so well known. This show owed to another at Under the Bridge, run by Lou Anne Colodny, the founder of COCA. This show paired cord installations and solid-color painted shapes on the wall, a forma-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 ready-made sculptures, her palette was earthy or, as in her drawings, based on Bauhaus colors. It was significant, then, that she intervened in the dark brown and white space with careful applications 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 color. She showed this series at our Emerson Dorsch Gallery with an installation that echoed the forms on paper. The following year, Sylvia Karman Cubiña, director at the Bass Museum, gave her the most perfect room in which to create her vivid world. The resulting exhibition, Deceptive Constructions, was exquisite, her best to date. What lent this exhibition its power was that its works emerged from a lifetime of making art in this particular scene — an intersection of museums, galleries, and artist-run spaces. By navigating so much of it, Rifas has developed artwork that is 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 create an art scene that can build an artist’s entire career. Jane Chu, former chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts, has said just this — 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. This recognition of her life of work in art is a fitting honor for Karen Rifas, and we are grateful to Oolite Arts for shining a light on her and the other 44 winners.