Whitehot Magazine

Permutations: Paintings by Rifka Milder at The Yard

Rifka Milder, Okay, I Get It, 2019, 30x40 in. Oil on linen.

Permutations: Paintings by Rifka Milder

The Yard

Through August 12th

By DAVID JAGER, July 2023

Thirteen vivid oil on canvas works-curated by Audra Lambert- make up Rifka Milder’s current painting show enlivening the Yard, a handsome public work space near the Williamsburg Bridge. Her signature, semi abstract works, intense investigations into cellular shapes and flowing lines overlaid with bright hues, carry on New York’s longstanding tradition of painting as a deep investigation of form, line, color and surface. The intense isolation of the last three years gave Milder the room to pursue the iterations of a visual idea in all its permutations, hence the title.

This new series of paintings grew out Milder’s preoccupation with architectural reflections on the water New York’s botanical gardens. She grew fascinated with how these forms are perceived and how they proliferate, almost like living things, in the visual imagination. She has taken a visual leitmotif and amplified it, creating cellular surfaces that buckle, ooze and expand with possibility. It’s also an investigation into how the water’s surface is actually a meeting point for two worlds: the outer and inner, the organic and the inorganic, between what is reflected out to the world and concealed beneath a murky surface. Milder uses her brush to delve into the relationship between what has been wrought by nature and what has been made by human hands.

Unlike other artists who have explored the surface of water as a stand in for nature, Rifka appears more concerned in their formal and semi abstract possibilities, though they never appear the least bit artificial. Rather, her paintings appear to be natural incubators for the slowly accumulated growth of figures and figure ground relationships, enlivened and unified with color. They retain a deep imprint of the natural world, but they are not necessarily naturalistic. Rather they are dynamic spaces where forms can grow, appear and interact.

Sometimes these shapes threaten to become actual figures, as in the painting ‘Slumber Party’, which teases a few embryonic shapes, maybe animal or human, or perhaps the hint of a simple, Klee like face. Like Klee, and Appel, Milder ventures into the abstract without ever losing a deep sense of the creaturely and the organic, of something just freshly unearthed. This explains the childlike sense of wonder that fairly radiates from many of them. They appear to be less exercises in application and closer to excavations, ways of formally digging into surfaces to see what’s underneath. It’s fitting that one of the canvases is titled ‘Roots’, where rhizomatic forms twist and tangle, digging themselves into the lower recesses of the canvases orangey brown depths.

Roots into Flowers, 2019, oil on canvas, 24x24 in.

Other works appear to be the end to a long and perhaps tortuous internal dialogue carried out over an extended period of time. “Okay, I get it” appears to be the result of such a trial of push and pull, of Milder interrogating the canvas until she finally reached a point of satisfactory coherence. Dozens of cells crowd the canvas, a cacophony of forms that tilts towards illegibility. It is only pulled back in the end by a large amoebic like circle and a tower of squat, squash like forms that establish a satisfying sense of balance and weight. It’s as if Milder is attempting to get the disparate shapes in her canvases to converse, to coexist somehow as they emerge and squabble. Color is a major factor in this negotiation, with deep indigos figures offsetting the burnt orange ground, creating just the right tension.

Other explorations are less driven towards the emergence of nascent forms and appear to be closer to abstract landscapes. ‘Spring Picnic’ fairly dances with bright blobs of red, ochre and yellow against an olive background. Along with ‘Dry Plains of Spain’ it seems more of a distanced presentation more in line with Frankenthaler or Mitchell. Whether intensely tunneling into the relationship of dense cellular forms or pulling back for a more serene survey, the effect is no less engaging or pleasing.

The daughter of second-generation New York school painter Jay Milder, Rifka carries some of her father’s penchant for vibrancy and rough vitalism in color that fairly jumps off the canvas. Even so, she has always had her own unique painting process. Starting with an underpainting of earth tones such as ochre, burnt umber or raw Sienna, she begins the process of overlaying her backgrounds with fluid gestural lines. This continues in a deeply intuitive back and forth that continues until the composition begins to gel. Color gets added later, in a back and forth she refers to as a ‘dance’. This is what lends her canvases their sense of contrapuntal or dialogic forms, of things speaking with other things. It also lends a processional sense of the passing of time, deeply imbued into the very catalytic process and emergence of each canvas.

Milder’s work has at times been compared to weaving, which makes sense. There is a denseness to her surfaces that betrays a continuous shuffling and reshuffling akin to the looming of fabric, as if she were using her paint brush as a shuttle to weave color and form together. To this end, she is currently collaborating with a Guatemalan master weaver to translate her most recent canvases into woven pieces.

Viewers who interested in painting as an investigation into the emergence of form and color should drop in on this show. Intense, painterly engagement of this sort is increasingly rare, and to see it undertaken so earnestly, and with such a sense of guileless possibility, is deeply refreshing. WM


David Jager

David Jager is an arts and culture writer based in New York City. He contributed to Toronto's NOW magazine for over a decade, and continues to write for numerous other publications. He has also worked as a curator. David received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Toronto in 2021. He also writes screenplays and rock musicals. 

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