A guest in Gowanus: A visit to Judy Rifka’s studio in Brooklyn

By Mark Bloch

I cannot stop touching the bulging, sensuous white areas that look like they are not painted on but oozing, no, raising up out of the canvas, an effect she said was not intended but “extra.” Lucky for my sense of touch, the whipped cream-like puffiness is but a bi-product of her process. Judy Rifka cannot be contained. Her white areas cannot keep in her black areas. Her blacks cannot hold back an assault from her layers of white. She tells me when the color is squirted on, she has to constantly clean her feet with paper towels. Eruptions of color explode onto the overlapping planes, extending the thickness of the cascading, spiraling strata, perhaps attempting to climb away from her influence but actually climbing toward it until she is able to temporarily say “oh, that’s nice” and then she leaves it alone, stops and begins again.

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Judy Rifka. Image courtesy of the author.

Sitting on the floor, riding a magic carpet of the primed black layer positioned atop the white one, surrounded by the unstretched canvas stretching out from beneath her in all directions, she trims out shapes that land first upon her mind’s eye, then her real eye and then her hand as she locates them with chalk then cuts them out. She cannot follow the lines and she cannot NOT follow them, tossing over her shoulder any shapes she does not want in her current “sandwich.” Shapes made sturdily out of the negative space that remains call out for paint which is, as she told me, nothing but “glue with pigment in it” so she does not glue anymore, she simply adheres between the black and white with paint, around the nothingness, then lets it dry.

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Judy Rifka. Image courtesy of the author.

“Do you discard the excess shapes in the trash?” I inquire and she says sometimes she does but not always. Shapes she does not want cannot contain her, nor can the chalk lines that once suggested them, but sometimes, apparently, they call back to her when she is creating new versions, to live again. (This weekend she also made grids with right angles in chalk to separate haphazard little mini-spirals designed for giving but when her friends say no, do not cut them apart she agrees and leaves the long matrix of black and white squiggle spirals in tact to adorn her back wall where the ceiling is too low to stand up unless you are Judy. Not to be contained even by her ceiling or her own ideas, or by her friends’ ideas, there is a pair of scissors nearby and a feeling it could be used at any moment.)

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Judy Rifka. Image courtesy of the author.

But the larger paint and canvas “sandwiches” dry—on the floor, I presume, or maybe on the wall, she did not say. For this occasion, with the floor clear, the sandwiches were stapled to the walls many layers deep, sandwiches of sandwiches, like the pages of a book, with no cover and no spine, like thick, heavy, movie frames made of canvas and paint—no—canvas and pigment and glue. She squirts her color. From right out of the jar or tube, she didn’t say which, into a squirt bottle, sometimes mixed with medium, she did say, and then onto to that top layer of splatters and bursts and twists of bright color that occasionally interrupt the gentle dances and violent wars of black and white.

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Judy Rifka. Image courtesy of the author.

When I ask her does she use a lot of paint she does not answer, she points me instead to her movies, real quick time movies not contained by paint and canvas but movies!—running on a computer, non-stop, works she has also made—out of pixels and electrons. When I first became aware of Judy Rifka only a few years ago, she was making symmetrical shapes that looked like masks or wings or both. She filmed them and there they were now, blinking and stretching and widening on the screen. She also photographed them and put them on Facebook where I saw them and printed them with Jennifer and now makes these and other movies with soundtracks by Daniel Dibble. After the familiar masks and wings I see she makes unfamiliar red and orange planets that wink and blink and spin and unfamiliar pixilated chain link fence-like cartoons that remind me of Dymaxion geosdesic domes seen from the ground looking up at the sky on my back—now we get to ride the magic carpet—but those are just wiggly lines with big dots made of Photoshop “in betweens,” she explains. Judy Rifka makes screengrabs of things other people throw away and makes art out of them in I-movie and QuickTime and anything else she can find. Pixels gyrate, they pulsate, they trade places, they explode and dance. There is a dancer among the planets, plain as day. The music rises and falls, it is soft and playful and colorful like the lollypops she offers little children who wander in to her studio space or it screeches and roars causing adults from the adjoining parts of the building to come over and ask her to please turn it down.

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Judy Rifka. Image courtesy of the author.

She is polite and she complies but we still hear it, even the soundtrack to her movie by her friend cannot be contained, no, not beyond recognition. It is like a fire that does not go out. Cordial and compliant but persistent, reaching out into the room, into the hallways, subdued but uncontained and free, meandering toward another secret crescendo. She collaborates, she works alone. As Judy Rifka rants against stretchers, “Stretchers!” piles of them line the entrance to her space. She can no longer cope with this somewhat recent invention. “When did it begin?” she asks her guests. She cannot bear them—the stretchers, not the guests— yet there they are, like her guests, supporting her previous work, similar but altogether different, a stepping stone, once useful, now discarded, unlike us her lucky guests, still here, like her, on the way to where she is right here and now.

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