From the 2000s, Karen Rifas’ most visible works were installations of dried oak leaves strung on taut cords. The dappled shadows these works cast contrasted with the lines’ precisely drawn geometric volumes, contracting minimal and natural references into a signature sculptural vocabulary. Since then, Rifas has exhibited an extensive body of works on paper, which assert an exacting linear pattern and then variations in balance and symmetry. In these works, which she made throughout her career, we see the origins of the way she animates lines in space. Their style recalled the exactitude of Sol LeWitt’s line drawings but with heavier lines. In installations during this decade Rifas employed colored cords to render geometric forms in space, regularly spacing them to define the volumes’ surfaces. The slight variations of the coiled threads in the cord were the foil to the computational aspect of her geometries, as the leaves were in the installations before them. Rifas used a pure red, black and yellow palette during this time; she stated that these colors were, for her, more strictly “architectural.”
For her show at meetinghouse, Rifas introduces a site-specific intervention and a selection of works on paper, a number of which use a much broader palette. The timing of her departure from the restricted palette is related to her response to meetinghouse’s interior space, designed by the notable Trelles Cabarrocas Architects in a Spanish Colonial Revival style. This style, like most revival styles, is subject to idealizing the styles of past powers in order to project the potential for new power or success. Rifas will intervene in this setting by painting specific architectural details a mauve-pink. The color is significant – pink carries with it strong suggestions of the feminine and girlishness, a reading constructed by the United States marketing industry over the last 30 years. Functionally here, it contrasts with the brown and cream colors in the penthouse where meethinghouse is located, so its strategic application pops. Rifas’ drawing on space, then, is all the more legible and begs re-consideration of the space in feminist terms. Why is it that the projection of power and success in a commercial setting still seems so masculine? Are there other ways we can describe it?
Furthermore, the pink Rifas uses is a shade leftover from other projects in her workshop, and it is not exactly marketing’s pink. Its mauve tint is slightly off. Though it is tempting to attribute this to un-girlishness, I think it is actually an opportunity to think more carefully about how we attribute and by turn project characteristics with gendered qualities. On the occasion of this show, Rifas reflects on her own past work, saying that she chose her colors and forms, subconsciously eschewing feminine references, in order to “be architectural,” to align herself with the cannon she held in her head. Indeed, the artists who established the minimalist movement were all men – Sol Le Witt, Carl Andre, among others. Other artists invoked in relation to her work are also: Piet Mondrian, Fred Sandback, Kasimir Malevich and her teachers Bobs Huff and Thiele. By a simple change in color she can recalibrate her cannon and influence her own future works. Now, as ever, she can also look to Bridget Riley, Agnes Martin, Michelle Grabner, Lynne Golub Gelfman and Frances Trombly. And we will invoke them too.