When Billy Corgan of the group Smashing Pumpkins – at the height of their fame – asked Vasily Kafanov to create all of the graphic material for their album and tour Machina/The Machines of God (2000), he found an artist whose visual imagery matched his group’s music and lyrics in its density, poetic allusiveness, and fantasy. Their combined efforts resulted in a brilliant collaboration whose central theme of alchemy, the transformation of base metals into gold, was of great interest to both artist and singer. The commission also announced the arrival of a significant new talent on the New York artistic stage. Born in Moscow in 1952, Kafanov received a thorough artistic training in the Soviet style: textile design at the Moscow Technological Institute (1978), Animation at the Ministry of Film (1984), and long immersion in the fertile world of book illustration from 1980. Before leaving Russia in 1990, he was already embarked on a distinguished career and was a member of the prestigious Artist’s Union. He had also proven to be a real find to the actors of the film “The Russia House,” including Michelle Pfeiffer and Steven Fisher, who collected his paintings while on location in Moscow.
Kafanov has brought the craft and versatility so evident in his formative years in Moscow to all that he has produced since arriving in New York in 1990. He has tried his hand at ceramics, printmaking, and sculpture – remarkably, creating distinguished works in each --although painting has remained his principal focus. In each of these his style remains immediately recognizable and singular. Figures and objects are placed in an overall pattern across the surface, both their silhouettes and details literally drawn in a dense web of black ink across the color of the acrylic paint. Sometimes a narrative is being told – travels; festivities; harlequins; court life of the middle ages. At other times a single image is in the forefront and all else recedes behind it.
Of these images, that which has continued to play a role in Kafanov’s imagination longest is the so-called ‘Fishtower,’ in which a tower grows from a vast airborne fish. The artist has attempted to locate the fascination of this image for him. It derives, in the first place, in a childhood experience of great poignancy. While growing up in a communal apartment, he had begged his mother for an aquarium with fish. There wasn’t room, but she finally gave him two fish in a pickle jar. They survived for a month, and when they died his grandmother told him that they had flown away. This memory was later joined to one of the old bell towers of Moscow (perhaps made more interesting because the churches to which they were attached were more or less shut down by the authorities). Both of these childhood memories – resonant with emotions relating to desire, deprivation, and some kind of faith – came back to him when he first flew over Manhattan, its ‘fish-like’ shape bristling with skyscrapers.
Although the folkloric aspect of his recurrent images has led critics to compare some of his earlier works to Marc Chagall (and indeed Kafanov knew the venerable artist and was encouraged by him), the work of the last decade or more has moved far from that beginning. The recent paintings are increasingly dense, with enigmatic and moody qualities. This evolution came to fruition in a masterful series of collages of the last five or so years. Built up from photographs, bits of metallic machinery, wooden elements, etc., as well as with the characteristic pen lines and thick acrylic paint, these are enormously satisfying compositionally, and can be haunting in their effect. Folklore gives way to meditation on personal history, the passage of time, and glimpses onto other places and landscapes. Likewise, the confidence and monumentality of a recent series of rough- hewn wooden sculptures of fish and fish towers makes a remarkably distinctive impression. The artist is very interested in creating objects like these, which almost seem ancient or ‘primitive’ in their simplicity; as he said of some woodcuts that he made for the Smashing Pumpkins commission, “The first books in this world were made with woodcuts, and I try to imitate that sense of antiquity.” Thus too the illusionistic framed borders of many of his paintings and collages seem to allude to old Russian icons.
In an interview Kafanov has said that, “I paint all the time. I don’t wake up in the morning, get dressed to paint, finish in the evening and go home to my regular life. Art is my life.” This is borne out by the searching quality of his work, in which one thing leads so naturally to another – from one medium to another, from one experiment to another, and circling back through the same themes but seen from different angles or lenses.
Dr. Andrea Bayer
Interim Deputy Director for Collections and Administration & Jayne Wrightsman Curator
Metropolitan Museum of Art