Judy Rifka's energetic and experimental new work effectively summarizes a number of the formal propositions that can be seen in the art in New York galleries this season. Even though the manifest content of the new art frequently retains a sociological thrust, right now the underlying formal issues are activating the best work. Some of the questions posed are: What are the persuasive alternatives to the Brunelleschi system of perspective in the creation of an illusion of three-dimensional space? What are the illusory consequences, and how can the interaction of color, area, and shape become codified into a commonly accepted means of communication? How can traditional figurative signs and symbols be allied to and furthered by the structuralist terms of abstraction? In short, in painting and sculpture, a thorough revision of the syntax of visual communication is in progress. The mood is upbeat because the formal problems are open and the discussion is on.
Rifka's range of formal devices includes projecting and overlapping sculptural elements, perspectival illusion achieved by painting the shadows thrown by projected light, contrasts of light and dark and of color, and the flattening effect that results when conventional symbols are the subject of boldly executed line drawings. The spiral is an example. In a recent installation at the Brooke Alexander Gallery these means were used to turn two rooms into an activated, highly charged environment that successfully stimulated a direct experience of spatial indeterminacy. The installation was made up of about fifteen separate elements. Each of these experimented with some specific problem of visual illusion or served as a dictionary of the artist's terms. Figurative motifs working in symbiosis with the formal subject matter included a winter landscape, a variety of figures in motion, and suspended balls. Sculptural variety included many permutations of forward tilt and sideways pitch and the consequent angular conjunction between flat planes. The objects, which varied in size and location, included a simple wheeled, movable panel and a complex compilation comprised of six separately mounted but interconnected pitched and tilted panels.
In general the procedural sequence was first to build a disruptive sculptural surface and then to cover it with a simplified rendition of two-dimensional image for which a projected transparency provided the source. In one series the image used was a bird's-eye view of a dancer; in another, the columnar structure, triangular pediments, and horizontal steps of the Parthenon, in a third a snowy wooded landscape. The overlay of a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional scene upon an unrelated three-dimensional surface having guaranteed a multiple disordered field, the artist responded to its vagaries by attempting to bring the image back into a coherent whole. At this point the principal technique was to edit, simplify, and accent the lines of the images so that from several vantage points their apparent continuity worked to minimize or obscure the discontinuity of the sculptural reality. The boldness of stroke used in this kind of drawing was matched by intense contrasts of black lines over white as well as by strong contrasts between the background and overlaid patches of color. However, these relatively large areas of color were used as much to add a further layer of visual confusion as the reunite images and planes.
The whole work, electric and even zany, was particularly stimulating, its seeming insouciance depending upon a sophisticated command of the individual techniques of visual discourse; linear and aerial perspective, simultaneous contrast, shape and size relationships, foreshortening, etc. In addition, the tour de force of formal expertise was enriched by the way in which the artist adroitly triggered the viewer's consciousness of historical and contemporary precedent. Cued by the landscape, the foreshortened dancer and the Parthenon, one recalled the visual concerns of all periods of classicism as well as the rapprochement with eastern art that occurred at the turn of the century. Prompted by the palpable perceptual tension, a mind sweep of the concurrent exhibitions (both in and away from New York) retrieved Robert Longo's falling figures, Benni Efrat's installations in which light falls on and attempts to unite a variety of painted, reflective, and sculptural surfaces, and the multi-dimensional conundrums in which Thomas Macaulay of Dayton and Andrew Leicester of Minneapolis use powerful geometric signs to apparently flatten spatially disparate surfaces.
Rifka, more effectively than most of her contemporaries, has managed to achieve the experience of indeterminacy that has become the principle symbol of the age. In the hills of Southern Ohio, deep localized canyons carved from sandstone by slow streams are filled by tall, slim, straight, beach and pine reaching toward light. Here, when the ground is snow-covered, as one looks down and across from the rim, the trunks and boughs of the trees interact so forcefully with the snow-glow that establishing a steady spatial reference is an impossibility. In the manner of an oriental landscape painting, the scene abruptly and unpredictably flattens. It is a giddy experience, likened by Rifka to watching branches against the sky, and it brings to mind eastern painting's continued dialogue with the conceits of illusion. Wall, a 1983 work measuring 110 by 274 by 60 inches, evokes these experiences.
This painting, a composite of panels tilted in various directions, stretched the width and height of the gallery. The back-ground color represented snow; the imagery created by the collaged canvas lines depicted the dark boughs and trunks of evergreens and ecstatic figures in motion-some skiing, some dancing, many falling. Looking at it, the eyes and the mind were forced to continually sift, accept, and reject its barrage of contradictory information. This caused a powerful perceptual response that both paralleled the dislocation within the structure and supported the conceptual premise. Furthermore, because the work had to be experienced for meaning to exist, its premises and conclusions were entirely visual. As such it contrasted with the more illustrative modes of painting which were on view elsewhere at the same time, e.g.; those of David Salle or David Hare.
Unity of concept and artifact gives Rifka's work both internal and external richness. For example, in terms of object, the bold lines of Wall were created by applied canvas strips. These were pre-cut and pierced; thus, when they were pushed into position over a surface generously plastered with oil paint, the paint oozed up through the holes, out and around the edges. The resulting excrescence fastened the components together and softened the line edge. In so doing it added a textural contribution to the whole line that served to enhance the feeling of spatial uncertainty. Also, because these pre-cut pieces frequently extended beyond the edges of the planar surface, the junction between planes was so effectively disguised that it virtually disappeared. In terms of context, when comparing Rifka's recent work with a new painting by Sean Scully, an artist whose latest work compresses similar formal concerns into a single experiential moment, one was struck by the way in which Rifka's adherence to the permutative principles of experimental inquiry, and her continued alignment with the view that single unified works cannot encompass all experimental, conceptual and expressive concerns, caused her to posit visual issues as things in the world to be thought about rather than to be shrouded in mystery.
Rifka is one of many artists whose work has experimented with configurations of shape and color for over a decade (Bochner, Stephan, Tuttle and Shapiro are others). In Rifka's case, the felicity she exhibits is synthesizing the analytical and the experiential into an examination of the precise terms of visual communications is impressive. This is a skill of special relevance to our historical period, one in which video and film have begun to usurp the primacy of the written and spoken word. (1) It is now conceivable that a comprehensive ordering of the knowledge embodied in the traditional forms of visual art (i.e., painting and sculpture) can provide the terms for an effective linguistic theory. It is now possible for Michael Kubovy to recognize that there are artists who may be the avant-garde of Cognitive Psychology, (2) and for Arthur Danto to propose that because art and art theory have become synonymous, Art has become a form of Philosophy.(3) These advanced perceptions of the integration of art and culture encourage the hypothesis that avant-garde visual communication, as embodied in conventional and electronic art, may eventually develop a lucid mechanism whereby the philosophical conclusions of one age are most effectively transmuted into the concepts of the next.
1. Marshall McLuhan, "T.V. and Society," Milton Eisenhower Symposium, Johns Hopkins University, 1977.
2. Michael Kubovy, "Introductory Remarks," Aspects of Perception Symposium 1, Anderson Gallery, Virginia Commonwealth University, November, 1982.
3. Arthur Danto, "The End of Art," Aspects of Perception Symposium 2, Emily Blum Institute, Bard College, March, 1983.