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Karen Rifas' 9023 (2017), acrylic on paper, 45 x 45 in.EXPAND
Karen Rifas' 9023 (2017), acrylic on paper, 45 x 45 in.
Image courtesy of the artist and Emerson Dorsch/Photo by Frank Casale

In Deceptive Constructions at the Bass, Karen Rifas Creates Space Through Color

Picture a gallery — the walls, the ceiling, the configuration of the space. Is it difficult to see anything more than a white box? What displays art is often meant to recede into the background, to do nothing more than complement the pieces on view. With her work, Karen Rifas hopes to do the exact opposite.

“I do want people to be aware of the space that they’re in in the installations,” Rifas says. The maquette of the gallery space in front of her is evidence of the detailed consideration she and curator Leilani Lynch are taking to actively construct the show, taking into account the height of the doors and their relationship to the space between pieces and more. In positioning the art, Rifas notes, “We really thought about whether it should be 19 inches or 15 inches [from the wall] because I think these things help the viewer think about space. It’s kind of like a teaching tool.”

Arguably, every installation is done with a similar degree of care. Lynch herself acknowledges that each show changes as it begins to take over the gallery space it will live in, but with Rifas’ work, the process is a more intricate and complex puzzle.

“They’re adaptive,” Lynch says of the work. “We’ve been seeing them in the studio, but you start to understand how they change the space once they’re in the room. Really specifically so with [Rifas’] work, we start to understand, OK, this wants to be higher or these shapes play off the floor.

What’s initially surprising about these spatial relationships is they’re established through color. Rifas explains she’s “been brave enough” to use a varied color palette in her paintings only within the past two years. Her previous work in sculpture and installation employed red, yellow, or blue cord, but those were structures that traversed “real” space.

Karen Rifas' 13.41.49 (2017), acrylic on paper, 45 x 45 in.EXPAND
Karen Rifas' 13.41.49 (2017), acrylic on paper, 45 x 45 in.
Image courtesy of the artist and Emerson Dorsch/Photo by Frank Casale

In the case of Rifas’ two-dimensional work, color creates space, sometimes in impossible or disorienting ways. What looks like an approaching plane suddenly becomes a backdrop, a structure that looks solid becomes hollow, and lines that appear seamless from one angle are disjointed from another. Simple shapes and lines conceal a deeper exploration of perception and ambiguity. In an artist statement, Rifas writes, “Above all, I am using color for the sensuousness, discovery, and play that it offers.”

It didn’t seem possible at first that deception and play could coexist. We expect geometry to be predictable and literal, colors to be light and frivolous. Disrupting that expectation might seem uncomfortable or absurd. In the same artist statement, Rifas writes, “I feel that I am living in an irrational and absurd time. My work is an illusion for a delusional time in history. Bombarded with bad news, I am reacting by escaping into a surreal but structured place of color, line, and geometric form.”

Ultimately, the deception isn’t in the simplicity of shape and color, but in the subtlety of Rifas’ work. Taking your time in front of one of her paintings is like eating a layered dish of complex flavors — each new realization of pattern or volume is sometimes like a flavor burst or sometimes like the hint of a familiar taste you can’t quite pinpoint.

But taking your time is essential. Only then can you begin to notice what is so easy to ignore.

Deceptive Constructions. 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 23, through October 21 at the Bass, 2100 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-673-7530; thebass.org. Admission costs $10.

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