judy rifka at alley culture

Art In America 1998

In a back alley in a turn-of-the- century neighborhood, amid the ruins of postindustrial Detroit, lies a cultural outpost established by the painter Sherry Hendrick, a former Colab artist and now Motor City resident. Her project, Alley Culture, is set in a refurbished garage that has no formal address and only a wood-burning stove for heat in winter. Its provisional nature as a showcase for art recalls the borrowed exhibition space of Colab's 1980 "Times Square Show," in which Hendrick participated. Her mentor from that period, Judy Rifka, reaffirmed their connection recently with an exhibition at Alley Culture of her "Pet Boy" series that included an installation of multiples and three large-scale drawings (all works 1997).

The "Pet Boy" motif, a cartoonish cat-headed male figure often rendered seminaked, made its first appearance in Rifka's work in the late 1970s. At that time, she adopted a feminist position which led her to appropriate techniques of the male gaze as an art strategy. Here the "Pet Boy" installation comprised dozens of outlined figures in several standardized poses, each mechanically reproduced on 5-by-S-inch card stock, arranged on the wall in floor-to-ceiling rows. The figures were hand-painted in a rainbow of flesh tones as a multicultural array of exotic yet commodified objects of desire. A Neo-Classical pattern on the banding of the underwear worn by many of the "Pet Boys" looks to have been derived from a Gianni Versace ad.

The large drawings, each covering an entire wall, were inspired by the late-18th-century Italian artist Domenico Tiepolo, whose works were on view in New York last winter. The drawings were loosely rendered in black and white acrylic on paper, traced from projections of the various "Pet Boy" poses repeated and grouped to refer to specific drawings by Domenico (all ca. 1800). In her drawings, Rifka considers Domenico in relation to the art of his immediate past by rereading his secularly titled images through Christian iconography, as they may have been understood by his contemporary viewers. Thus his drawing Punchinellos Felling a Tree, which depicts figures wrestling with a timber, Rifka recasts as the Raising of the Cross; The Burial of Punchinello, which presents an entombment as other clowns look on, she transforms into the Deposition; and Punchinello Retrieving Dead Fowls from a Well, which shows a figure emerging from a hole in the ground surrounded by other figures, she reconstructs as the Resurrection.

Rifka's attraction to Domenico Tiepolo would seem to acknowledge an affinity between them as cultural producers operating in not dissimilar situations. For Domenico, the compositional tropes of earlier Venetian masters, including his own father, Giambattista Tiepolo, are recycled as images agreeable to a burgeoning irreligious bourgeoisie. In parallel fashion, Rifka reworks the Neo-classical and the Pop, setting all sources in quotations for today's art-world cognoscenti.
- vincent carducci