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Nava Gidanian-Kagan's paintings at Olean Public Library

Trion Dancers

Eventually those who count themselves among the arts community of greater Buffalo probably will find a reason to visit the Olean Public Library. GPS says it’s an hour and 15 minutes south on Route 16, weather clemently cooperating. (Car-pooling is a good thing.) Buffalo Arts Studio curator Cori Wolff sets up these exhibitions monthly in a room just off the public library stalls. That’s what it is, a room, but so completely given over to decent wall space and lighting that it definitely holds up as a venue for small exhibitions.

It’s not too soon to make the trip. Nava Gidanian-Kagan, an Israeli-born painter, now Buffalo-based and a graduate of the New York Fine Arts Mark 11 Program, has, in her first US solo exhibition, a show of works that are worth the drive.

Nicolas Poussin is the first boldly figurative antecedent that comes to mind while viewing Gidanian-Kagan’s paintings, followed by Edgar Degas and the pioneering photographer, Edward Muybridge. In oil and pigmented encaustic wax, her figures project graphic energy as they thrust and grab, brace and turn. Brushing on a fat load of paint, she sets down a swath and with a paint knife swipes it off, building the work as the encaustic layers, in a series of additions and subtractions, set up a limning of ruts and gouges, changing the way the light falls on the canvas, adjusting the edge or angle of a limb, the margins of negative space defining a figure and the surrounding field of the composition, all in a luminous clarity.

Working from poses of dancers, Gidanian-Kagan integrates the figures into the composition in a way that emphasizes each dancer’s pose as a formal element rather than a personality or narrative subject arranging the figures in close groups that give a sense of structure to the paintings. Grid-like stripes and rectangles flank the figurative arrangements in bright contrasts, often silhouetting the figures against areas of almost abstractly painterly color.

Thirty years ago, painting in the Western tradition (that’s Europe and North America not cowboy artists) could bring rival factions to within inches of each other’s noses exclaiming figuration over abstraction and vice versa. Over coffee and cigarettes, bravura figurative painters like Paul George and Leland Bell, with whom I studied at Cooper Union, held forth in the basement of an East Broadway dairy restaurant against the mewling minions of second-generation abstraction, each side upping their pejorative ante until the scraping of folding chairs signaled the audience shambling to their feet in protest. Where upon the painter “Nick” Nicolaides, a teacher at Art Students League, and the son of Kimon Nicolaides, an early 20th-century muralist and painter whose book The Natural Way to Draw: A Working Plan for Art Study is considered a classic, would appear from the shadows, tousled shock of white hair and trademark red scarf radiant, and exclaim in a rattling bellow, “Painters paint!” wilting the combatants in mid-jab.

That kind of aesthetic exhibitionism seems laughably archaic now, but Nicolaides’s dictum is still unassailable: Do the work, the work will out.

Nava Gidanian-Kagan is doing the work, elegantly balancing convincing illusions with the demands of a painting as a flat surface covered in shapes.

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