Herewith Art

by Ann Harmon

No sooner does one world-class exhibition leave Richmond than another comes to town.

The work of Judy Rifka, New York painter and paper sculptor of international renown, will open with a reception at art6 at 6 E. Broad St. on Friday, Aug. 5 between 6 and 10 p.m.

Rifka’s subjects move on the canvas. Against bright backgrounds of non-objective shapes or three-dimensional forms, the people, props, and buildings pulsate with energy.

The artist needs and uses only a few lines to bring a figure to exuberant life. Her minimally delineated figures turn, twist, and dance, and they surf on great choppy waves. They exult with raised arms and arched backs, and they tumble with the wind. Thick black lines, jagged, and often broken, inject the bodies with stunning energy. Rifka achieves the motion not only through the alacrity of the moving bodies — or legs, or arms — but also by flinging colored circles behind and around the bodies. Critic Rene Ricard called these important dots "spotlights," and added, in an essay from 1982: "This is a light show…joyous light rare in painting that radiates from the canvas and floods the room." Bright trapezoidal panels of the primary colors, painted or attached diagonally, add even more action to the backgrounds.

Rifka’s method of painting itself is a leap beyond, or at least a bold diversion from, the usual. She draws various sections on transparent acetate sheets, then moves them about to create the desired composition. Often, she builds up the surface, adding material to the canvas to create a third dimension.

This intense action takes space; Rifka’s paintings measure in feet or meters, not inches. Some carry over to the walls behind. The exhibition guarantees surprises.

Critic Joseph Maschek, reviewing Rifka’s work for a 1984 exhibition in Charlotte, N.C., wrote that Rifka’s rendering of her subjects is "utterly agitated." The description could apply to not only her figures, but also to her other subject matter. Buildings give off the same aura of constant engagement. A favorite architectural motif is a structure with columns, often appearing as the Parthenon or some close relative. However, the structures belong to this particular setting, created by this particular artist. Although the styles differ markedly, Maschek compared the Impressionists’ "hustle-bustle of 19th century Paris and Mondrian’s Boogie Woogie" to Rifka’s "still edgier, more anxious and testy, late 20th century version of the same mentality."

The artist, herself a study in energy and motion, leaves a trail of stories as to her own vitality. Ann Shengold, curator of the Charlotte, N.C.., show, said that when she met Rifka’s plane in Charlotte, she suggested a tour of the city, a bit of time to get settled, or lunch. Rifka would have none of it; she requested that Shengold take her directly to the gallery, where she went right to work installing and painting in preparation for the exhibition.

In the hope of a Rifka show, Mitzi Humphrey of art6 gallery wrote, after seeing some of the artist’s daily extemporaneous creations on Facebook, that she would welcome an exhibition at art6 by Rifka.

"To my surprised delight, she said ‘yes,’ and that she would use the total gallery space, and that there would be an exhibition catalogue, and that she would oversee the installation and create site-specific art. She is a force to be reckoned with," Humphrey said.

Rifka’s perpetual motion and the vivacity of her work play an on-going exchange of mutual vigor.

"I prefer art that can’t be easily labeled, categorized, and pinned down…art with no creative holds barred. I revel in Judy Rifka’s experimentation with — and apparent spontaneous mastery of — evolving new media," said Humphrey.

Rifka’s paper sculptures, complex three-dimensional structures, boast dark and intense colors with occasional flashes of white. Strips varying in width and shape curve in and around each other to form constructions that at first glance appear non-objective. Shortly, however, a face or a figure emerges, sometimes precariously positioned, hanging on an edge by only fingertips. Shadows and negative spaces all contribute to the depth and mystery. The colors and decisiveness of composition eclipse the idea of paper as fragile, and establish strength and purpose.

Critic Andrea Scrima wrote about Rifka’s work for the art6 exhibition catalogue. Scrima wrote of the "poly-faceted paper sculptures" from a series called the "Monsters": "part insect, part architecture, part tangible, part virtual, they are hybrid creatures of this world and beyond, godlike beings with tiny sharp-toothed mouths and jagged-edged exoskeletons; incubi with throbbing thoraxes and jointed legs, ogres with multifaceted eyes and probing antennae."

Each one in this "Monsters" series could pass as Rifka’s highly complex version of Rorshach’s mirror images, but arguably more provocative through suggestions of the paranormal and the elaborate three- dimensional composition of each. The titles of some invite the viewer to impose a narrative, or at least a little vignette. "L’Esprit de la Rose" is indeed composed of many shades and tints of reds and rose colors, but it also takes on a rose’s abstract qualities: curving layers of color, and membranes through which that color family appears in subtle gradations. "Setting the Stage for Disaster" presents face distortions accompanied by a busy horde of hands, claws, and fingers waving and groping the air. "Here’s Looking at You, Kid," as its title suggests, displaces fright with humor. We see widely-separated eyes — those of a frog’s kin, perhaps? — looking out over a large rib cage.

Not all galleries could host the work, but art6 can handle them. Co-directors Mitzi Humphrey and Henrietta Near, along with a succession of devoted art6 artist members and supporters, have carefully reconfigured the winsome old two-story shop on Broad Street to create housing for large works as needed. The main gallery downstairs has great unbroken stretches of exhibition space, and the mezzanine and top floor can also accommodate the extraordinary. The exhibition can be viewed through Aug. 27. The gallery is open on Saturdays from noon until 4 p.m., and by appointment other days. Call 343-1406. FP