Judy Rifka Nostos
The Chocolate Factory September 13–October 20, 2007
Since her days at the forefront of postmodern painting in the 80’s, Judy Rifka’s oeuvre has been admirably restless. There is an interplay between subject and expression that makes her difficult to pin down as an artist; sometimes one seems to take precedence and sometimes the other, but they are equally important to her, and this creates a continual tension inside the work. Her new series at the Chocolate Factory demonstrates the complexity of her project. Shapes resembling mangled abattoir leavings are painted in livid reds and bone-blues and dark purples on natural linen, then the painting is cut out and glued to another piece of linen. Smaller canvas collages are more restrained, made of cut-out circular shapes that seem to refer both to an older obsession of Rifka’s with classicizing forms and to the Russian Suprematists.
The title of the show, an ancient Greek word meaning something like “Homecoming,” is mysterious, but at a guess she is extending her interest in the classical to an idea of an elemental rendering of flesh, something pure and rooted inside the body. The painting of the larger works is knotted, fist-like and scabrous in the sense of “full of difficulties.” Some figuration emerges, suggestions of teeth and claws, and in one painting what is recognizably the bottom half of a baby girl. Beautiful six-foot-tall sculptures propped along two walls of the gallery reminded me of what a piece of clay looks like when you squeeze it in your whole hand, but more apparently evoke bones, yet extrapolated into some essence of bone. Expressed outwards in spurs and spikes, and painted on their surface in curving strokes, they are bone-shaped canvases on which other ideas about bones are worked out.
The linen-and-paint collage goes back to a consistent play in Rifka’s work with 3D, as in the paintings from the ’80s in which she stacked canvases and painted figures and shapes across them as if they were one unified surface, a kind of double inversion of modernism’s progressive flattening of the foreground. In a sense the new works could be an elegant meditation on the same idea, but from a completely different approach, since in this case the paint doesn’t overlap the outer layer but rather delineates the shape, making it into a discrete image, almost iconicizing it. One can see the relationship between one idea and the other, but they look and behave completely differently. Rifka’s work seems at all times to change by leaps and bounds rather than in a smooth progression, as if activated by synapses continually afire. Her mercurial approach may account for a waxing fame in the company of her compadres from the East Village scene and this is a pity, as it betokens a real freedom of mind.