Judy Rifka's recent exhibition at the Chocolate Factory in Long Island City was her first solo show in the metropolitan area in over 6 years, and one wonders why this talented, volatile artist, associated with the artists' collective Colab and the freewheeling East Village/Lower East Side scene in the late '70s and 80's, has absented herself for so long. The show was titled "Nostos," which is apparently the ancient Greek root from which the word "nostalgia" is derived and means a return or homecoming as well as a species of fish - all of which is appropriate to Rifka's current project.
Entering the basement gallery, reminiscent of the unfinished-looking, no-frills exhibition spaces of 30 years ago, you first encountered 14 paintings in the round, as Rifka calls them - propped at intervals against one long wall, with one in the elevator shaft. These works conjure up earlier forms of life - or perhaps future ones - in muted colors threaded with flashes of brighter hues, as if their brilliance had been eroded by salt, sea, sun and time. These fantastical forms, or "Totems," are about 6 feet high, their contours crenellated, spiny and suggestive of snarling dragon heads, sea horses and various mythological creatures reduced to skeletons, a return to some more recalcitrant, primordial state. Rifka shaped these painting/sculpture hybrids - half-abstraction, half representation - by stretching their linen supports tightly over an armature. The apparently casual brushwork - a gestural patterning of blues and greens, with some white, some red, against the neutral tan of the support - is set in opposition to the more decisive-seeming intricacy of the structure.
Scattered on the floor before these works were globe like shapes the size of beach balls, similarly painted but more regular in configuration - as if they were rocks, perhaps, rounded by the sea. At once organic and inorganic in aspect, these objects seemed to be a kind of ecological fallout, artifacts washed ashore. They read as reliquaries of a sort, but whether they had been abandoned or salvaged, it was hard to say. Mounted on the opposite wall were paintings, modest in size, also oil on linen, whose swirled shapes - in vivid, radioactive reds, violets, corrosive greens and blues - had all been laid down with Rifka's characteristic verve. They were also collaged with circular and less regular sections cut from other paintings, then affixed to the linen, along with two or more shapes placed symmetrically, even heraldically, in the field. The layering recapitulated the idea of three-dimensionality embodied in the painting/sculpture hybrids, but the effect was much closer to relief.
Tightly orchestrated yet surprisingly expansive, the installation also resembled a grotto - one populated with sea-changed, curiously beautiful grotesquerie. Rifka, whose highly charged, cross-disciplinary way with painting is still evident, even if it is here brought to bear on something more like sculpture, is clearly an artist ripe for reassessment.