From the dark horizon of my future a sort of slow, persistent breeze had been blowing toward me, all my life long, from the years that were to come. And on its way that breeze had leveled out all the ideas that people tried to foist on me in the equally unreal years I was living through.
–Albert Camus, The Stranger
Entering a room of paintings by David Gista can feel disarming at first, like finding you have walked onto a stage set where some unknown drama is being enacted. The strange sense of both distance and intimacy in his images draws us in like the participants of an unscripted film we are unknowingly participating in. Oblique compositions of abstractions and fragmented slices of life feel like fast frame images from a Jean Luc Godard movie, or a subliminally cut sequence from Alain Resnais’ film Last Year at Marienbad. There is something distinct about David Gista’s surreal poetry of mystery and disillusionment with modern life, a kind of equivalent to French Cinema Verite in painting, with his keen and often ironical vision of social and cultural reality that combines raw emotional undercurrents and psychic intensity just below the surface. The artist plays with signs and fragments culled from personal life and the mass media, disrupting a sense of continuous time and reassembling the parts with an unconscious synchronicity.
The theatrical and cinematic texture of Gista’s work is not surprising given his background in theater before becoming a painter. Gista states “I loved the team effort and the camaraderie but at one point I was more into introspection.” This is also apparent in the artist’s deliberate play between two contrary poles in his work, the sense of the tragic and the comic which often combine to express a dark, even absurdist sense of humor: “ That’s the whole point. I like the ambiguity because that makes a difference … in how you can perceive life. I am fascinated by the relativity of emotions.” The cinematographic quality of his depictions of people and scenes relate to his fascination with film culture. The dramatic lighting and cropping of images in Film Noir and Westerns were early seminal influences in his life growing up in Paris. “My father would bring me two or three times a week [to the cinema]. We would discuss movies all the time.”
This film aesthetic merged with Gista’s interest in painting which belongs to the traditions of Dada, Pop Art and Surrealism. Francis Picabia is an important influence as a Dadaist forebear who synthesized a style of painting which used illustration, pop culture, and kitsch in a palimpsest overlay to create bizarre visual juxtapositions. This attitude was typical of the Dadaist practice of mixing individual stream of consciousness with the texture of modern life, and the equivalent of automatic writing which the Surrealist’s regularly practiced. Other important influences in Gista’s work are the paintings of David Salle and Eric Fischl from the 1980’s. Salle reinvigorated Picabia’s use of stylistic shift and metonymic image overlay with a cool, lugubrious sensibility that addressed American obsessions with pornography and commercial materialism. Eric Fischl’s work also dealt with estrangement, rendering his human subjects in banal suburban settings caught in salacious acts and rendered with a raw and seedy fleshiness. Gista takes from both of these artists, using an urban, cinematographic sense of image overlay with an improvisational and raw painterly handling of the human body, clothing, and face.
The Soul Bags are one of the artist’s most engaging artistic series, a counterpoint to his paintings of anonymous headless figures with gesticulating hands. The feeling of detachment and alienation in these earlier works is replaced by the confessional intimacy of dozens of faces, each painted in extreme close up on cloth canvas bags replicating lunch bags, grocery bags, and shopping bags of different sizes. Some faces in the “crowd” are recognizable politicians and cultural figures from Europe and America. The most arresting aspect of these works is the intensity of eye contact in each face that gives a group display of bags powerful psychological impact, as though each face were a silent witness to some unrevealed secret. The eyes are indeed the windows to each person’s soul, each confronting the viewer in a speechless gaze of silent witnessing. With this concept the artist’s theatrical skill is at its playful best, giving a sense that the bags are a stage or backdrop for the viewer’s personas to interact within and among. The idea came from the artist’s recollection of bags with candles lit inside them used by the Southwestern Indians to commemorate the spirits of dead ancestors. David Gista has transposed the idea of ancient primitive rite into a modern context, giving a simultaneous experience of individual intimacy and a contrary sense that human lives are as ephemeral, disposable, and mundane as the commercially functional bags which contain their modern “souls.” The Soul Bags give a sense of how temporal and arbitrary contemporary human existence has become, while also revealing the poignant fact that in spite of this each and every human soul remains an ineluctable, even unfathomable preserve of individual existence.
Gista’s many images are derived from photographic sources that exist in mass media, film, magazines, newspapers, and personal life. “I am really relating to my personal feeling about the world today … you have the sense of extreme primitivism and extreme sophistication at the same time, and that’s also the way I feel about myself. Common history and personal history: that’s all I’m playing with.” David Gista’s work also bears some relation to the artist’s love of American Jazz and Blues music with its rough improvisational and subversive edge. His sense of the tragicomic is based on two major themes that are endemic to Western society: the cult of individuality and the oppressive and invasive presence of the commercial mass media: “This [situation] is crazy because these two opposite messages are spread at the same time.” Many of Gista’s images are about this unstable dynamic mix of human beings and invasive media elements, neither of which are able to be completely reduced to the other. He sees contemporary life as a constant battle between machine and the human body: “The only hope you have today is your primitive side because, you know, it saves you. You exist as flesh and blood, you are not a machine. That is the issue of the 21st century.” In a similar parallel Gista sees the battle of biological and technological elements on people in the form of invasive viruses. Planes of abstract bit mapped blocks and lines “interrupt” his images like the degeneration of a computer image contaminated by a virus. Whether as a statement of political and social inter-human conflict, or a struggle against invasive mechanization and banalization, Gista uses “amputated images” to depict an unbreachable gap between opposites which he is continually trying to unite. It is this conceptual dilemma that creates the emotional tension in his works and is the source of its mystery and silence. The treatment of fragments like puzzle pieces, particularly of human faces in his Camouflage and Soul Bag series, heightens the impact of mystery. Like a semiotic detective story, the artist’s manner of composition seems to be saying that what cannot be totally revealed whole must remain shrouded as a fragment, and that the fragment is the only way to be true to the depth of the unrevealed. Truth can only exist on a non-logical intuitive level. Consciousness can only go so far and no more. Often this consciousness deals with time and history, as is evident in many of Gista’s paintings which focus on politics and historical events. Well known American and French politicians and historical figures often appear in these works with overripe faces satiated with power and reeking of hypocrisy. These paintings warn about the uses of propaganda in the media to manipulate public mass opinion and historical perspective. In the artist’s own words “Human stupidity is also a virus.”
Like French Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s capturing of the “Decisive Moment,” David Gista visually and emotionally attempts to use feelings and impressions by being in the contemporary modern moment, “to use the element that I have in front of my eyes.” This is why the use of “concept” in his art is different from American variants of conceptual art at its philosophical core. For Gista the human presence remains and does not completely capitulate to deadpan intellectual strategy: the decisive human “moment” is still held in its plastic suspension. Like Cartier-Bresson he sees the artist as a witness of society and history who has the capacity for intuitive penetration of the moment, where “Intuition is about observation.” His approach is a reminder of the kind of historical difference which can exist between the French and American treatment of deconstruction in postmodern art, a difference that is most distinctly marked by the intellectual tradition and influence of existentialism as an important antecedent to deconstructivist thought in French culture. Unlike American conceptual art strategies, Gista’s use of concept in his artistic vision lies in a direction that allows an open ended purpose, where lived experience and intuition jam the reductive analytic aspects of intellect: “I want to embrace a kind of open and changing possibility, to have the freedom to change.” Perhaps this is no where most apparent than his series dealing with memory, work which is concerned with the existence of historical revisionism and its attempt to erase and destroy the reality of memory and the past: “If you deny history then you want death … memory is the only thing that keeps you and the people before you alive.”
Gista’s work reflects an intellectual consciousness which comes out of French culture in the way he witnesses the existence of human contradiction. The work breathes a strange a kind of poetry, sometimes brutal and oblique yet also capable of beauty and fragility through unexpected association and discovery. He addresses this poetic strangeness he perceives in outer human society and the inner human psyche, emphasizing that there are unknown quantities that exist in both worlds and whose mysteries reveal a certain existential point: “Some moments of your life are completely unconscious. In other moments you have too much consciousness. The bottom line is our mortality. I think that is what brings a sense of sadness into my work, the love of life. It’s something you can’t have forever.”
Diane Thodos, May 2006