New York

Judy Rifka

Brooke Alexander

Judy Rifka’s is an opportunistic art. All of the current trends in contemporary painting come together in it with terrible ease. Most of the works are lushly painted female nudes triggering allusions to high art as well as to commercial pinups and soft porn. Hybrids of painting and sculpture, they mock flatness yet are far from standardly structured reliefs. Canvas is stretched over an erratically built armature, creating an arch awkwardness; crudity, once the defiant sign of authenticity, becomes another effect cleverly manipulated to harmonize with slickness. This determined mix of the primitive and the facile also animates Rifka’s painterliness, giving it the same false (stylized) boldness the blatant image has. Everything in these works exists for exhibitionistic purposes—a common enough phenomenon these days. In Rifka’s pictures, a nipple at times cleverly becomes a high point; the support in general has the heaves, putting it in whimsical rapport with the rhapsodic bodies of the nudes, a comic reciprocity between medium and image. And of course the bravado of these mock representations of the eternal feminine signals that Woman is an “in” theme again, no longer repressed by the neomacho, expressionist-oriented scene. So why not give her, as Rifka does, female power—a luscious female body “passionately” painted—an old archetype to satisfy the new sensuality?

I’m tired of parody, witting or unwitting. In Rifka’s art it has become hyperbolic, a kind of delusion of grandeur: the work ends up parodying itself. Clearly, all the jokes that art can play on itself have been told; cleverness is not creative cunning. Rifka’s conceptual pouncing on other art is strangely spiteful, as though she were vexed by the female reality to which her works might allude if they were not merely neo-Expressionist signifiers. Rifka’s works show the “Jordache look” of sensuality trying to pass itself off as Anna Magnani earthiness. The still lifes even more clearly reveal the art-historical trip-wires threaded through them. They are pure allusion and simulation; pinch them, and the burglar alarms of recognition go off. This isn’t appropriation of familiar imagery; it’s predation. For all the apparent extroversion of these paintings, they are really another example of making art out of an economy of scarcity rather than one of abundance. It is a little art with a big look.

What I do like about these works is that they are sharp examples of what I call the “performing object.” In recent years, object and theater have fused under the banner of performance art. The art object as a whole, not simply the medium or the image, wants to be an active performer. This unity represents the complete collapse not only of the old distinction between the avant-garde and kitsch, but of the idea that theater is pure art’s enemy. Like theater, the performing object can engulf the public by exploiting its longing for fantasy but to do this, the object must be sufficiently “loaded” to explode reality, which is why it performs so hard. A Rifka work is essentially a magnificent entertainer, just like the one in John Osborne’s play of that name.

Donald Kuspit