at the Maya Polsky Gallery

Vasily Kafanov’s oil-and-acrylic paintings on canvas at the Maya Polsky Gallery are instantly enchanting. With roots in both Russian Jewish culture and the carnival tradition, these works initially overwhelm the viewer with their whimsical figures and unique technical approach. But Kafanov employs only a few symbolic motifs throughout this large show of 31 pieces: masked or unmasked musicians, fish carrying towers on their backs, and the occasional rooster or pyramid. Though the limited number of images allows the artist to focus on his highly detailed and labor-intensive process, it also becomes repetitious. Despite the thematic redundancy, however, Kafanov’s style is completely mesmerizing, and delightfully non-American in temperament.

Many of the works start with an underpainting of delicately blended golden browns and yellow oranges, and the main figures are part of this underpainting. Kafanov then highlights them by adding energetic bursts of festive, confettilike shapes. These small fragments of black, white, or a primary color, often painstakingly outlined in fine lines of black ink, provide a crisp contrast to the subtly modulated underpainting while giving the figures emphasis.

Dialogue is characteristic of the artist’s style and iconography. In the left third of the composition is a figure wearing glasses, a white mask, and a red-and-white flecked shirt. His head is crowned with a golden tower that tapers upward to a point, and he’s playing a white pipe and facing a similar-looking musician playing a pipe back to him from the right third of the canvas. In the space between them and overhead floats a golden fish bearing a more rounded tower on its back. Unlike the musicians, the tower-fish has very little contrasting color. If it weren’t for a gentle burnt-umber shadow following its bodily contours, it might be indistinguishable from the glowing background. Kafanov further activates the already scintillating surface by scattering across it a variety of tiny, idiosyncratic details. If you look closely you can see little red or black arrows, as well as isolated numbers and Russian words. The mind boggles at the sheer amount of minutiae in most of these paintings; and in fact the artist often paints a thin frame around the compositions, seemingly to contain them.

Clearly Kafanov’s work is inspired by Marc Chagall’s. Also a Russian Jew, Chagall gained world fame in the 1940s and ’50s for lyrical paintings that celebrated his cultural roots. Though Kafanov’s style is distinctly different from Chagall’s, his work has a similar mood of ethnic celebration and whimsy.

Russian Harmonica or the Disintegration of the Russian Empire is Kafanov’s only triptych, three horizontal panels vertically arranged; it’s also the show’s largest piece. The center panel, twice the size of the bottom and top panels, features a large castle-carrying fish. The upper panel depicts a chain of eight peasants wearing traditional folk dress and holding hands. In the lower panel is a large street organ being pulled by two clowns, one on either side of it. Golds, orange browns, and siennas dominate; red and yellow confetti floats around the figures in the top and bottom panels. Though the title and the jubilant peasants make the narrative obvious, this fanciful visualization of the toppling of the ancient empire is still engaging. The confetti, the clowns, and the public celebration of common folk all indicate a carnival. Dating back to at least the Middle Ages, carnival is a period of feasting and revelry just before the fasting of Lent. It represented a “safe” time when the masses could ignore the official rules of work and social deportment without being punished. Kafanov thus pays homage to a time-honored folk tradition, and situates carnival in a historical time that seems the ultimate occasion for mass celebration–freedom from czarist political repression. Whether deliberately or by accident, “disintegration” also alludes to the more recent crumbling of the Communist regime.

Kafanov handles his media with a joy and virtuosity seldom seen. He pushes, daubs, brushes, blends, scrapes, and otherwise finesses the pigment until an undeniably rich surface is born. This is especially true of the golden-hued paintings, which delightfully recall candlelight and old parchment. His other palette combinations, however, also yield pleasing and sometimes striking results. In The Tower of Babel white pigment predominates, emphasizing smaller areas of lighthearted color. Here the artist’s trademark tower-fish, which appears in some area of almost every canvas, takes center stage: the tall, spiraling edifice resembles a cake with luscious white frosting. Flung about are little sprinkles of bright color that actually depict architectural details–brickwork, windows, stair steps, etc. The tower commands the picture, dwarfing the fish that carries it. The two of them rest as a unit against a lovely background of blue green, brown, and cheerful pastels. As a final touch, the artist encloses the image by painting a narrow red frame around it. The happy color scheme in this painting seems ironic given the message of destruction implied by the reference to the Tower of Babel.

The voluptuous play of the paint makes the tower a tempting confection, which obviously symbolizes a decadent society. But what of the fish? This rich symbol is open to a variety of interpretations. Historically the fish has signified spirituality and renewed life. In Christianity it symbolizes Christ and the Apostles, renowned fishers of men. Or perhaps Kafanov uses the fish to represent our own individual psyches swimming through the waters of the collective unconscious.

Kafanov’s treatment of the tower-fish is much more visually poetic in another work, called simply The Tower. Here the building is bathed in layers of blended mauves and oranges that change to white near the top, and the background is a gentle mix of blues, violets, and orangy mauves. This time the fish is not painted but etched into an impastoed area of mauve background and thereby rendered ghostly; it also seems to swim through the tower’s top section instead of carrying the tower on its back. The profuse, vivid black ink lines common in Kafanov’s other works are hardly noticeable here, and the resulting homogeneous surface conveys a quiet, mystical feeling much different from the artist’s usual extroverted mood.

One of the show’s most striking palette combinations can be found in The Rooster. Against a background of fleshy pink and gray, a large tyrannical-looking rooster seems to lord it over two figures sitting cross-legged at either side of its feet. The belligerent fowl is painted in off-white with a few intense violet-blue arcs running through its powerfully arching tail feathers. Although there are a few bits of bright color here and there, the calmer white, gray, and pink scheme prevails; its neutrality magnifies the intensity of the feathers’ violet blue, adding to our sense of the rooster’s overbearing power. There is humor in this image of a monster bird, but pathos too. The small seated figures certainly seem oppressed. Their white outfits and short green vests indicate Russian folk dress, and two Russian spires visible in the misty distance seem to represent an authority and privilege unavailable to the two unhappy peasants.

After the tower-fish Kafanov’s favorite image is the tower-crowned pipe musician. Many of his compositions feature musicians playing to one another; others are portrait studies of just one figure blowing into a fancifully embellished instrument. Often the players wear glasses, a white mask, or both. But they all wear the exotic towerlike crown. Sometimes the crowns are tapered and look like the traditional headdress one sees on Thai statues in museums. Others are more rounded, like those a Western king or bishop might wear.

The musicians are intrinsic to the European carnival atmosphere that inspires Kafanov. Yet he doesn’t explore their thematic potential much: they seem to remain on a detached symbolic level, never becoming individuals playing their own personal songs. They merely repeat the same music over and over, and variously painted color schemes don’t succeed in altering the tune. Kafanov depends too much on gorgeous color and a galvanized surface to sustain viewer interest. Similarly, he fails to investigate the concept of the tower-fish. This unusual motif is simply a looming, brooding presence in each canvas–with one exception: the ghostly fish of The Tower. Freed of its architectural burden, this delicate fish hints at exciting compositional and metaphoric possibilities yet to be revealed.

There is no denying Kafanov’s technical abilities, which make an immediate and striking impact on viewers unfamiliar with his work. But to hold our attention over time and repeated viewings he must do more. If he can vary the use of his unique motifs and perhaps invent a few more, Kafanov could achieve an important position in contemporary painting.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.