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KUSTURA Recent Works, Mostly

by Janet Marie Sonntag

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Immaculate Conception
Mixed media 20" x 16" x 4.5"

Look at Kustura’s Immaculate Conception and you will see the reverberations of his Catholic childhood. Images of religion permeated the Croatian landscape he grew up in: droplets of blood on statues of Jesus, the unending processions of purple-covered figures, the passionate cult of the Virgin. The longer you look at this painting, the more you realize its power. The female figure gazes upward to the heavens, realizing that in some mysterious way she is with child." Her holographic hand reaches out in a blessing—or for her throat. In between the eyes and the hand, a veil of dark paint suggests a hidden, enigmatic world.

The statements Kustura makes about his own work are equally enigmatic. "Painting is not a question, it’s an answer", he says. In the experience of painting itself, he finds healing.

In fact, his discovery or art became an antidote for the disorder and confusion of his teenage years. He had no inkling in his childhood of his future career. "One may be born gay," he says "But one is not born an artist." Instead, he ran around Split getting in trouble. A social worker saw something there, though, and encouraged him. It changed his life.

For his entire adult life Kustura has painted like other people breathe: from a damp basement in Venice where he was a student of sculpture, to a studio in San Francisco where he made his early reputation, to a loft on the East River in years that were often personally chaotic and dark, to the house where he now lives in the Hamptons-a house he fondly calls Noah’s Ark, presumably because of its shape.

He lives like a monk, and has a Buddhist-like detachment from activities other than painting. "I have never been able to develop interest in things such as sports or travel, not that I did not try," he says. "In order to do something, I have to have a reason, a purpose. I just don’t go dancing. I don’t go out there to have fun".

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Val Over Road
Oil 30" x 40"

As the creator, Kustura finds answers in his work. The viewer, however, may find that answers that lead to the kind of questions that lurk just under your skin, that you can’t quite put into words. I have followed his career since his early days on the west coast and while his work has changed over the years—it is now more serene, and somehow wiser—his paintings from whatever era are immediately recognizable. Immediately, you know his work not only for its style, characterized by his sensual, confident, often breathtaking brushwork, but for a kind of tension of content that is singular. It can only be a painter who has never been anything else.

His subjects are often classical: nudes, portraits, or landscapes, or the figure of a horse or hands. But unlike most painters of classical subjects, his paintings are not windows on the world-either the real world or the world of the imagination. Think of a Renaissance painter, think of any of the Impressionists, who looked out on the world to capture a place and a time in their paintings. Or think of the Surrealists, who pictured for us the weird world they saw in their imaginations.

Kustura does something different. His paintings don’t have a time or a place. He creates a world with its own tense dynamics—and one that is totally bounded by the edges of the canvas. It can be a kind of idyllic world, as in Val Over Road. This is a more classic Kustura, a celebration of the female form echoed by the landscape, characteristic of his earlier works. The sculptural qualities reflect his early training as a sculptor and show up in his paintings of the female figure. "How can one not be fascinated," he says. "From the time the Venus of Willendorf, artists pay women tribute. They can make life, after all. Compared to women, men are just water pistols."


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Simple Flower
Oil 30" x 25"

But the world he creates can also be a prison. You feel that the characters that populate many of his his canvasses are aware of their singular entrapment in the image, and as the image. The forms embody a kind of primitive intelligence and self- aware doubt. Even the images of the non-sentient objects such as trees or hands are transformed. In By the Lake a cypress rises up dramatically like the Hamlet of trees-caught in the dilemma of its own existence.

Other paintings, such as Hand&Rose+Horse, are compositions of juxtaposed images. Such works draw out the process of art for him. "Whenever you look at any object, you are looking at it through the filter of your vision. You look at an object, but your mind wanders, your mind has everything in it has had before. So I do that with my painting. I pile one thing on another until it no longer bothers me. There is a horse farm near by. In this painting, the painting wanted a horse, so here comes the horse."

Above all, for Kustura painting is an emotional affair, not an intellectual one. That’s why he is not impressed at the current obsession with conceptual art. "It may be interesting at times but its influence is limited at best. Conceptual art in all its many forms is produced, promoted and perpetuated by individuals whose original choice of activity (and education) typically lies elsewhere. Usually it is later in life that they get born again. Although they are fond of regularly declaring the art dead etc., they are talking about an environment that they were never part of. It is a travesty, a world of posers, just like their audience. A performance or an installation for example, is fundamentally an intellectual proposition. It is supposed to make one think, pose a question at best, usually with rather limited results, a wanting thing, sad in a way."

And so we come around again to his fundamental proposition: Art is not a question, it is an answer. For Kustura, painting rules. "It’s an inner thing—something I can hatch myself."

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Water Scene
Oil 30" x 25"