My Life

Story posted on March 12, 2009 at 4:00 AM

I was born in 1952 in Moscow, in a literary family. My parents Ludmila and Alexei Kafanov met at the Literature Institute, where they studied in the years after the war. Their marriage didn’t last long, and my upbringing was handled mostly by my grandmother. 
She came from a family of small-time landed gentry, and she naturally wanted to give me a classical education, which included the knowledge of French, piano lessons and regular visits to the Conservatoire. But it was all in vain. I did manage to graduate from high school, but only on my third attempt and only because the last school I attended didn’t get around to kicking me out. I was more interested in hanging out with hippies, partying and spending useless days doing nothing. As a result, I found myself in the Soviet Far East, on one of the Kuril Islands, serving in the ranks of the brave Soviet Armed Forces. There I got to spent many more useless and mindless days than in my entire previous life, but it was there also that I found my calling as an artist. It was in 1970-1972.

After I finished military service, events followed an ordinary path. I entered the arts department of the Moscow Institute of Technology, met another artist, Eteri Lobzhanidze, and we got married. My first job after graduation was not exactly in my professional field. I became an editor at the Bureau of Marketing of Soviet Cinema. (Apparently, nobody else was suitable for the task of marketing Soviet Cinema.) I soon began showing my work at the Moscow Graphic Artists’ Association and at young artists’ exhibitions in the city. Our daughter Lucy was born in 1982. Before coming to the United States, I graduated from the Advanced School of Cinematography and created four short cartoons at the Soyuzmultfilm studio, two episodes of the popular Recess series, Medvezhut and Vitamin for Growth, the latter based on a poem by St. Petersburg underground poet Oleg Grigoriev. I also illustrated a dozen children’s books for the Detgiz publishing house and jointed the Moscow Union of Artists. In addition, my wife and I cooperated on major decorative projects for factory clubs, first private enterprises and even foreign consulates.

In Russia, I mainly painted traditional oils on canvas, sometimes on wood panels. I worked on a range of subjects, but in the late 1980s my canvases, with increasing frequency, began to feature a large fish, which popped up in a variety of very strange settings. I recall the very first of such works. It was a rather large painting for the time, which had a dark blue background and an enormous red fish taking up almost the entire width of the canvas. Underneath it was a decrepit church and other things as well. (The painting was sold to a collector and went to the United States.) After that, other fish started to appear, carrying small chapels and towers on their backs.

Approximately a year or two before leaving for the United States, I got my hands on some English acrylic paints at the special shop of the Artists’ Fund. (At the time, nothing like that could be found anywhere in Russia, and plenty of other things were in short supply as well.) I began painting on paper. The technique I now use was developed because of our poverty and lack of good materials. There was no decent drafting paper in Russia, either. Since I was then actively drawing with the rapidograph pen, I needed good paper. A bum used to hang out near my studio in Moscow, one of those jack-of-all-trades types who could do anything for a bottle of vodka. One day he brought me an enormous silver-colored box on a canvas belt and with a flip-over cover. It was some sort of home-made imitation of a stylish portfolio. I still have that box, which I keep at my country house outside New York. The drunk explained that he found that box, filled with some kind of blueprints or mechanical drawings, near the building of some ministry.

"I figured I could get enough money for a bottle of vodka off you," the drunk explained. "You can paint it over and use it for your stuff."

I gave him money for a bottle, of course, but I was initially skeptical of his find. I put the box away in the storage room and forgot all about it. When I got those acrylic paints, I got those blueprints out, because in my ignorance I thought that acrylic could only be used on paper. The blueprints were crude, not really very professionally made and seemed to come out of the Ministry of Defense, judging by their style. But the paper was of excellent quality. It came from the State agency that prints money and important documents, and each sheet had a watermark in the corner. Every blueprint was glued to a piece of cardboard, and in order to separate them I had to soak them in water, because I wanted to draw on the blank side. However, I couldn’t always separate them and sometimes I had to paint right over the blueprints.

The ink on those sheets was so strong that it overpowered my foreign acrylic and showed through in various places. Letters, figures, arrows or lines appeared unexpectedly. I got to like that effect, and I did an entire series of paintings on blueprints. Sometimes I even added arrows and lines on purpose. Those stupid mining symbols worked extremely well in combination with acrylic. On top of that I also continued to draw with the rapidograph, and the black ink created an excellent effect when applied on the acrylic. From a distance, the work seemed an ordinary painting, but at a close range it looked very unusual, either like cloisonné enamel or a geographic map. Various symbols showed through and I enjoyed looking at mysterious lines and read fragments of text.

In the late 1980s, a friend of ours worked as a translator for a Hollywood director who was in Moscow to film a spy thriller The Russia House. The young woman asked me whether she could use my studio to throw a birthday party and to invite foreign actors. There was a large crowd of them. The guest of honor was Michelle Pfeifer, and her agent brought along his friend, the genius director and painter Franco Zeffirelli. They ate and drank and then started buying my works like crazy. Franco Zeffirelli chose about a dozen paintings and remarked: "You have an interesting technique, but the size of your paintings is too small. Make larger paintings using the same style."

The Maestro thought in terms of stage sets.

I followed the advice of the Master.

One way or another, in 1990 we ended up in America. We emigrated. I began my American period by finishing whatever Moscow canvases that had been left unfinished. My first show in the United States was in the summer of 1990 in San Francisco. An American collector who bought my works in Moscow helped to organize it. It went very well and I returned to New York literally with wings sprouting on my back. Of course I bought lots of different types of paint and began to experiment with various techniques. I started to emulate abstract painters by splattering a lot of paint on canvas and adding thick layers of paint to achieve a three-dimensional effect. Nevertheless, I didn’t want to get away from figurative painting and stayed with the subject matter, in order to preserve figures and outlines. To achieve this, I often traced the contours of every spot of color with black ink. I painted several works using Old Masters’ noble brown palette, such as ocher, sepia and patina. Several of my other paintings were based on old family photographs dating back from the 1930s. The similarity with the originals was tenuous and could only be surmised by the overall spirit and the color scheme, because the most important thing is to use the painting technique to convey the spirit of the time, as it were. That was my subjective intent, and I don’t know what an American or any other viewer would see in those paintings.

However, my most frequent and beloved subjects have been musicians, harlequins and, of course, fish. The origin in my paintings of musicians and harlequins, characters dressed in carnival costumes, wearing masks and turbans or towers as headgear, is easy to explain. I used to attend rehearsals of theater director Alexei Levinsky, since my wife Eteri was a costume designer for his productions. It was there that I got my first exposure to Comdia dell’Arte, performed in classical masks and costumes. Those figures stuck in my head and began to appear in my work already in Moscow. Usually it would be a painting with theater as a background, something like a stage set. But later I began to invent costumes for my male characters. (Female characters are a lot less common in my work.)

My harlequins are, by and large, regular guys. They ride bikes, albeit not very typical kinds of bikes, juggle, play squash or play the flute. Sometimes they quarrel and at other times they rest—perhaps even outdoors, in a natural setting. Sometimes the fishtower appears in the background, and sometimes they float above it.

I typically use bright primary colors with yellow backgrounds, as well as lots of red and green. In addition to Levinsky’s productions, you can, of course, find the influence of Pablo Picasso’s harlequins and of Mikhail Shemyakin’s work. I have never had anything to do with the circus or circus performances, so that my characters are more likely to be actors than circus clowns. But who knows what the viewer sees in paintings from this series.

Even as a child I liked all kinds of old, used and unusual objects. At home, we used to have an extremely interesting Chinese chest, which had many painted doors, rotating shelves and secret drawers. This may be the reason why my first collages were done using the doors of an old chest which I found on the flee market. I am a collector by nature, and for this reason I spend a lot of time at flee markets, seeking out various strange objects the purpose of which I couldn’t understand, old photographs and parts from old clocks and mechanisms. A find may lie on the bottom of a pile of similar junk in my studio, biding its time until one day it would find a place in one of my collages. Often the object itself suggested a solution, a subject or a composition.

Sometimes I transform a find into a completely new object, or else I use only a fragment or a part. While creating collages, I rely not so much on my skill with the paintbrush but on my ability to put things together using a saw and a hammer. I believe that my collages are an expression of my love of collecting and of antiques, of everything that has been touched by time. In general, I have always liked theatrical models and all kinds of three-dimensional art.

The series "Pages form a Traveler’s Diary" was initially conceived as actual pages from my sketchbooks placed on canvas. Then I decided to imitate those pages, and ended up doing paintings using my sketches, photographs and fragments of manuscripts, portraying countries and cities far and near, those which I have visited and those which I could have seen only in my dreams. Sometimes countries and cities that a great distance apart come together in my paintings. Some female faces that come through have been borrowed from Old Masters’ paintings, and sometimes they are actual portraits of my wife and daughter.

When I was a student, I developed a taste for painting still life with ceramics. My favorite still life painter is Giorgio Morandi. This is why when I stumbled across a ceramics studio in America I began taking classes. I used the pottery wheel rarely, and mostly shaped objects by hand, because I wanted to draw the things I liked to make and make things I liked to paint. I did plenty of still life paintings in Russia and in America. However, the technique has changed, as well as perhaps the color scheme. Sometimes in the background, in the far distance, there are wandering performers, birds or dogs. I often do bottles and vases on my painting in relief, closer to the originals, using various materials to model them as well as acrylic paint.

One day in the late 1990s, a couple of very strange characters wandered into a gallery where I had my show. It was in the summer, and it was very hot. They liked my paintings and they bought quite a few of them. One of them introduced himself as Billy Corgan and said he was a musician. His name meant nothing to me. I offered to help him hang the paintings he had just bought. Along the way, we started talking about alchemy and ancient manuscripts, and I said that I was working on a series of paintings on that subject. At home I told my daughter about those musicians, and she promptly produced a popular magazine with a picture of the lead singer of the Smashing Pumpkins Billy Corgan. That same evening I saw him on TV in a popular program. Approximately a year later, Billy Cognan asked me to work on his new album.

I did approximately 20 paintings for the album, as well as a number of prints. Billy liked them and he even decided to issue a larger album with illustrations and his own text on parchment-colored paper. In my opinion, it turned out very well. In addition, I designed stage sets for his concerts when the band began a worldwide tour. Billy had said that the band would break up, and it soon did. However, it has since reconstituted itself with new members and plays different music.

Alchemy, the subject which I shared with Billy Cognan, has always been a strong interest of mine. More precisely, not alchemy itself but its artistic representation in ancient books and in paintings by Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel. I painted a series of works about alchemy while working on the Smashing Pumpkins album. They are done in dark tones and are full of symbolism that will remain mysterious not only to the contemporary viewer but to me, as well. To be honest, reading literature on alchemy is akin to studying Cabbala without knowing Hebrew. What I mean is that my alchemy is purely decorative.

The same can be said about various other symbolism. I very much like to return to them again and again. I am particularly fond of Asian motifs, as well as Buddhist ones. I often turn to the figure of Buddha. By the way, a fish is one of Buddha’s incarnations.

I began making sculptures about the same time when I started making ceramics. I even took a few lessons in welding. But serious work began only after I moved my studio to a house in the country. The subject is mostly fish with human faces. Later objects began to appear that resembled mechanical parts of some ancient machines. You need to turn on your imagination when you look at them.

But without it, frankly, I don’t find it interesting to look at anything at all.