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Painter David Gista walks a fine line

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David Gista’s works feature weeping backgrounds, waterfalls of paint and silhouetted, isolated figures, that are generally depicted as if they are walking away from the viewer.

“Many things attracted me to showing the backs of people, said the French painter in an interview with F Newsmagazine. “It relates to the ambivalence of invisible and visible, presence and absence, being here and going away. It is an intimate feeling, being here and not here.”

Gista, whose works have ranged from large politically-inspired pieces to intimate reflections on the obsolescence and fragility of memory (one series was painted entirely on outdated floppy discs), says that he has a problem with what he describes as “artistic narcissism.” “I see many artists pursuing a very narrow context instead of a universal context.”

With the series of paintings scheduled to be exhibited at the Thomas Masters Gallery, Gista becomes what he describes as a funambule, walking carefully between, among other things, that which is intensely personal and that which is universal in feeling. The word funambule, explains Gista, is French for “tightrope walker.” “This [term] applies to my life…the perfect balance is fragile. There is fragility in the moment. Keeping yourself upright…is a challenge because life is in motion. Even the stones erode.”

In speaking of the recent American tightrope walk with immigration, Gista, who immigrated to the United States six years ago, observes the differences between the issue in France and in the United States: “France’s situation, I feel, is different…it’s a post-colonial immigration which creates a lot of problems.” Gista relates that when post-war France was rebuilt, the former colonial workers were no longer necessary. “This created tensions for those who had no jobs and then the economy collapsed in the 1970s and 1980s, which meant that immigrants got laid off and generally didn’t work for three generations. People got into criminal activity, ghettos developed and there was no chance to integrate.

“In America it’s more about imperialist integration,” says Gista, who likens America to the Rome of the modern world. “Integration happens here, although it is painful. America is created by immigration. We all come in one layer after the next layer. The fresher layer gets the harder time.”

Gista, who grew up in Paris, freely expresses his newfound love for Chicago, a town he says he finds difficult to be lost in, either emotionally or physically. “People talk to each other here. They say ‘Hey, how’re you doing?’ The first time I came here I was with a group and we got lost on the ‘L’ and this guy not only gave us directions, but he got on the train and rode with us to get us going the right way. He got off the train when he knew we were going to be all right. He went out of his way for us, for strangers.

“[It] feels okay for me to be an immigrant on the social level,” Gista confides. “The reason it can be hard or maybe even lonely is not about my status as an immigrant. It’s about roots. It’s about moving here later in life.”

Gista’s first meeting with an artist in Chicago was with SAIC alumus Ed Paschke, a painter with a reputation for generosity of spirit. “I asked him if he knew where I could get a studio and he said, ‘Yeah, next door.’” Gista learned many lessons from his ensuing friendship with Paschke. Gista credits the renowned Imagist for having a profound effect on his thinking, teaching him that “it’s OK to do what you want as an artist; you don’t have to have approval.” A dedicated advocate for other artists, the painter believes “that artists need other artists more than almost anyone or anything else.”

Gista still makes his work in the same large studio down the hall from Paschke’s space. “It was bizarre,” says David referring to the 2004 death of his friend. “It was very abrupt.”

In many of Gista’s paintings, the viewer experiences a sense of sadness. As is often the case for immigrants, the figures seem to have an uncertain relationship to the spaces they inhabit.

It’s no wonder that concepts of belonging are central to the paintings of Gista, whose parents were of different social backgrounds. Gista observes that in the more stratified French society the duality of his class status made him something of an outsider, never completely claimed by either side. Perhaps this is why his reflections on belonging are so intimately felt and so striking.

One senses after talking to Gista that he finds his most comfortable home in ideas. In many of Gista’s paintings, it is the deeper recesses within libraries that glow with the promise of revelation and connection. Towering bookshelves reference Gista’s inherited passion for books.

“For me books are really a presence. Books are a place. I’m living in or among them. I have an uncle who is a famous collector of valuable books. He lives among books in shelves so tall they are like skyscrapers. It affected me as a child, it was like a city of books.”

The fact that the shelves in Gista’s paintings dwarf the few patrons of the library points to the power the artist attributes to books. “You can’t define a library as an object. It’s a living, almost biological, thing. Written words let us create images. Images create words and sentences. There is transitivity created by books.”

In a number of Gista’s paintings the brightly painted spines of the volumes further signal to the viewer that contact with the books is of extreme value. They are painted as though they are sharp and hot, capable of excising useless ideas and infusing their subjects with new and vital ones.

Despite his love of ideas and dialogue, Gista doesn’t usually begin a painting with a preconceived concept. “I would rather play with the physical properties of paint and set the conceptualizing aside. I pretend that I don’t have a concept…and I find that I say more and it’s more subtle. Art is about mystery and you don’t want to kill away the part that you are awakening…. Some things are best left in the air.”

Gista recounts coming to an impasse with one of his paintings. In the painting, five figures with their backs all turned towards the viewer and with their hands lowered against their fronts, face a waterfall pictured in the background. To Gista, they seemed to be praying, but somehow that wasn’t quite right. When Thomas Masters, whom Gista describes as “a highly literate person,” came to David’s studio and saw the painting, the gallery owner was delighted. He thought that the five masculine figures were urinating into the waterfall. Masters encouraged Gista to call the painting “Peer Pressure,” a double entendre which pleased Gista.

“Americans are a playful people,” states Gista, who relates well to what he perceives as American lightheartedness and is himself open to encountering humor in unexpected ways.

The fluidly liminal environments of Gista’s paintings demand that his figures cultivate an equally limber balance, the kind required of any successful artist, immigrant, or tightrope walker.

Stranger in a Strange Land, new paintings by David Gista, are on view at Thomas Masters Gallery from May 5-26. Gista’s work is available online at www.thomasmastersgallery.com and www.davidgistart.com.

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