"Dark Shift," acrylic on canvas
by Christopher Miles
(Newspace, Hollywood) Walking a minimalist tightrope comes with its share of risks, not the least of which is the possibility that there's nothing there. And when it comes to canvases offering such a sparse aesthetic, a viewer tends to wonder whether it is better to break off the engagement before falling prey to the old "painting of a cow that went away" shell game. This is where Marie Rafalko's recent paintings prove particularly devious. Rafalko never really gives her viewer the satisfaction of finding the cow, but her images, if one may call them that, are hardly blank.
With truly minimalist art, one can see from across the room that the surface is what it is--just itself--and make one's decision from a distance whether to get up close for more of the same. By the time one gets close enough to determine if there's anything more to one of Rafalko's small, densely colored canvases, however, one has already submitted to the seduction, wondering while approaching these picture planes what they might have to offer and left wondering still even when nose-bumping close.
It's not that these paintings are empty, but that they offer a void. Good minimalism offers only surface, whereas Rafalko offers only depth, which is not to say that Rafalko fails at minimalism, a genre with its own set of conventions and attached ideologies to which one might naturally link these sparse paintings. Rather, this would suggest that minimalism is the furthest thing from Rafalko's plans. If anything, these paintings likely owe a greater debt to the Light and Space artists, though her work is straight paint on canvas, and is slight in both scale and presence. And while her works never suggest even the least pictorial information, they strike a direct line to the atmospheric quality of many a nineteenth century landscape because, more than anything, they seem to be not about the love of the object but the love of space.
Rafalko's approach to scale is largely practical, with her largest canvases topping out around thirty inches and most being considerably smaller, a size limitation necessitated in order to control the paint, which she pours in successive, thin layers to achieve the illusion of depth. Rafalko could likely improvise a means of making bigger paintings, but the reduced scale also serves another very simple yet effective purpose: It requires one to get up close. Were the subtle gradations that appear in her canvases spread out over larger dimensions, one might just stand back, catching the illusion from far off, but because from a distance one just catches only a hint that the colors aren't solid or even, one moves in and upon doing so has an experience not unlike approaching a small window or porthole. The closer one gets, the more one sees on the other side.
There is no literal 'other side' to Rafalko's works, but hers is as effective a disguising of paint on canvas as endless space as one might hope to muster. These are not paintings of nothing or about nothing, nor are they paintings that try to stop one's looking and thinking dead at what they physically are. Instead, these small packages of light and dark seem to aspire at least towards infinity.