A Foreigner and a Misfit: What do you do if art is in you?

Ivan Kustura, in the dining room where he works.
Ivan Kustura, in the dining room where he often works.

It’s very cold in painter Ivan Kustura’s house in Southampton Village.

It’s the middle of the morning and it’s the first week of March. His youngest son has just flown the nest, leaving behind his console piano squarely in the center of the living room where most people keep their television set. It’s too early to set the tinder alight in the wood stove. There’s a morning of walking and thinking, library-going and arguments in cafés to be had.

In the next room, dozens of painted canvases are leaned, face-in against the wall. A few large works that he’s still musing on hang waiting for his critical eye. Perhaps he’ll add a brush stroke or two to one today. But perhaps not.

At 62, Mr. Kustura is a misfit in Southampton Village, but that’s just fine by him. He’d be a misfit anywhere he went. He doesn’t care so much what anyone thinks of him, which is just fine because art critics think great things.

“A friend told me ‘you have strange habits,’” he said. “I have a strange life. I live like a Buddhist monk. I need to have order. I walk every day. I have a simple life. If you have a 9 to 5 job, someone is forcing you to do things all day, and you’re forced to juice it up. I don’t have that problem.”

Mr. Kustura will be the guest juror at East End Arts upcoming show, “Shadow,” which opens at their East Main Street, Riverhead gallery next weekend. While he’ll  be charged with picking about four dozen pieces for the show, he can’t really tell you what he looks for in art, any more than he can tell you how he paints.

“I don’t think there is such a thing as talent. You just go at it,” he says. “It’s not a logical process. You have to be some sort of wizard to do it, a shaman.”

“Last time I was a juror, at a gallery in Woodstock, everybody got angry,” he said. “This time I’ll be more considerate. I just chose what I like.”

East End Arts gallery director Jane Kirkwood has long been a fan of Mr. Kustura’s work, and she invited him to be the subject of a solo show at East End Arts’ Rosalie Dimon Gallery in Jamesport in 2012.

The postcard announcement for "Shadow"
The postcard announcement for “Shadow”

“I met him about seven years ago at an opening at Hampton Road Gallery [in Southampton],” said Ms. Kirkwood this week. “I asked him for an artist statement and he gave me what was basically a poem.”

Though none of Mr. Kustura’s work is in the show, Ms. Kirkwood chose one of his paintings for the postcard announcement, and the theme of shadow is one she deliberately chose because she believes Mr. Kustura is a master of shadow.

“We’re looking for people who understand how to use shadows to focus their piece. Shadows can be used in so many ways,” she said. “If the artist is clever and skillful enough, they can use it to draw attention to wherever they want the eye to go. It also creates mystery. We want to explore the many things that shadow can do. Negative space is just as important as anything else.”

“He’s the real deal,” she said of Mr. Kustura. “His paintings are utterly unique, very different and very skillfully done. What impressed me most is that he does things with one stroke. He’ll put a line in a painting that runs a yard and never retouch it. It’s a very strong skill that he’s got.”

Mr. Kustura said he doesn’t believe in talent. His work comes from a place that lies outside of both talent and skill.

Strange themes wander through his vividly colored paintings, as if they were planted there by the gods. An image of a beautiful woman, half undressed, can be subsumed by an airplane, or a horse will wander into the painting, turning its judgmental eyes on her vulnerable form. Or she will fall into a hole painted in the center of the canvas that may as well go through the earth to China. Even Mr. Kustura sometimes doesn’t know where the paintings will go.

Some years, like last year, he will wander through the world, believing he’s painted all he has to paint, turning his mind to philosophy. Then, sometimes, after not dreaming during sleep for a long time, he’ll begin to dream again.

“They show me the way,” he said of his dreams. “I didn’t paint much last year. I thought, ‘I’m just a philosopher.’ But I have to hold something in my hand.”

Ask Mr. Kustura for his artistic influences and you’ll get him rolling his eyes. He’ll tell you he doesn’t think Picasso could be anything but a painter. Then he’ll start to talk about music.

“John Lee Hooker, Bob Dylan and Nina Simone have more influence on my painting than any artist, except for Picasso,” he said.

“Dylan, I don’t think he had any talent, but he just went at it. He’s a great singer. He sings the way he wants to sing. if you hear him sing “Blue Moon”, nobody did it as well, not even Elvis.”

Mr. Kustura recently painted a portrait of the photographer Paul Ickovic, who wasn't sure what to make of the painting.
Mr. Kustura recently painted a portrait of the photographer Paul Ickovic, who wasn’t sure what to make of the painting.

Mr. Kustura was born in Slivno, Croatia in 1951. He went to art school in Split, and then attended the Fine Arts Academy in Venice, Italy, before coming to the United States in 1976, where he lived in San Francisco for a short time before settling in New York. He enjoys the U.S. but he gets into a lot of arguments with people here. It’s his sport.

His days are simple: He only eats at night. He washes dishes in the morning. He walks and reads and argues about politics in coffee shops. Sometimes he paints the people he argues with. They either love the paintings or they hate them. If they hate them, he thinks, it might be because he has shown them a part of themselves that they don’t want to see.

He’s made many enemies in the coffee shops, but that doesn’t really bother him. Americans, he says, just don’t understand how vital political arguments are to a civilized culture.

“You can’t have a balanced view of America without going to Europe,” he saids. “This country comes from Europe. If someone hears what I’m saying and they haven’t been in Europe they won’t understand me. In Europe, it’s normal to be critical of the government. Even Thomas Jefferson said the first and foremost goal of citizens is to criticize the government. He also said every generation should have its own constitution. This country does have its prophets, but all of them have been to Europe.”

Mr. Kustura shares Jefferson’s skepticism about free will, which had put Jefferson at odds with the other founding fathers of the United States.

When he isn’t listening to Dylan or Nina Simone while he paints, he turns to a series of compositions by the 20th Century mystic George Gurdgieff, who taught the transcendance of the common human state of waking sleep.

“He believes we have no control over things,” said Mr. Kustura of Gurdgieff. “In this country, people say philosophers are useless. They listen to psychologists. Psychologists deal with function, but philosophers are the height of it all.”

Despite his unease with the culture that surrounds him, he doesn’t feel patriotic about his own country.

“I like being a foreigner. When you’re a foreigner, people leave you alone,” he said. “In Europe you have a lot of license as a foreigner, as long as you are not in your own country.”

The daily coffee shop debate, at LT Burger in Sag Harbor.
The daily coffee shop debate, at LT Burger in Sag Harbor.

“But in order to do this, you have to be a misfit,” he added. “If you can do 9 to 5, why would you go crazy experimenting with your life? I’m a misfit. I never fit in anywhere. You have to find your place under the sun. I’m still looking for mine.”

You can see some of Mr. Kustura’s work online at www.ivankustura.com

The “Shadow” show will open at East End Arts on March 14. More information on the show is online here.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

4 thoughts on “A Foreigner and a Misfit: What do you do if art is in you?

  • March 8, 2014 at 11:52 am

    great work will forward you my new book almost ready beth

    • March 11, 2014 at 12:36 pm

      The article was very well written and is very nice publicity for Ivan. I have an invitation to the show from Ivan and hope to attend.

  • March 11, 2014 at 11:53 am

    Wonderful article! You have captured Ivan perfectly! He is such a talented artist and philosopher – and his son is a dream.

  • March 22, 2014 at 10:24 pm

    Ivan is an old friend whose art always mystified me. He is a master and a wonderful soul. Your article captures his whimsical personality perfectly and affords him some proper recognition for all the blood, sweat and tears he applies to his art. Wish I could have attended the exhibit.


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