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By Tapping His Artistic Nature, Diplomat Makes Sense of His Life

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As consul general, Gerard Coste is France’s man in Los Angeles. But it is Coste the artist, not the diplomat, whose work soon goes on exhibit in Pasadena.

And although the diplomat is very, very French, his paintings are decidedly Asian in spirit. As a result, his work is being shown at the Pacific Asia Museum, beginning Saturday.

Coste, 52, began traveling East with his first diplomatic posting in 1964.

“I always had an urge to flee my own culture and a prearranged destiny,” says Coste. His parents, the pharmacists in tiny Chateau Renard near Marseilles, would have been content had Coste stayed in the village and married the jeweler’s daughter.

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Coste was not content. Fascinated with what was not familiar, he entered the diplomatic service and requested Laos because it was the farthest, smallest, most exotic destination available. Made for what he dismisses as stupid reasons, the choice turned out to be a wise one.

“I bumped into Buddhist culture,” he recalls, “and it was love at the first sight.”

Coste began painting in Japan in 1973. At the time, he was having what a less introspective man might call an identity crisis, striving to make sense of his life, including his career. He was at the regular morning meeting at the French Embassy, sitting among the other young diplomats gathered around the ambassador, when suddenly the whole scene seemed to him like “an unreal movie.”

“Life could not be only this,” he thought. “Life was somewhere else. But where?”

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He encountered his destiny a few days later in a fashionable Italian restaurant in Tokyo. He was dining alone, as was the Japanese gentleman at the next table, a thin, elegant, longhaired man with a mustache and a little beard. They began talking, in French.

Coste learned that his neighbor was Toshimitsu Imai, a painter who had worked in Paris in the ‘50s with Sam Francis and other painters, including leading Abstract Expressionists. A few weeks later, Coste saw Imai’s work for the first time and was struck by “its strength--actually, its violence--and its freedom.”

Unexpectedly, Imai sent one of his paintings to Coste as a gift. The young diplomat asked Imai if he had a student who might teach Coste to paint. To Coste’s amazement, Imai answered, “I will teach you myself.”

So, over the course of the next two years, Coste learned to paint the Zen way, under the eye of his sensei, or master.

The method is both simple and profound, says Coste. “He would never tell me what to do but would simply urge me to paint in front of him, dropping from time to time a short comment: ‘That’s interesting,’ ‘That’s good’ or no comment at all, which I presumed meant, ‘No good.’ ”

When his master did offer specific advice, it had the weight of revelation.

Sometimes Imai’s aphoristic counsel was about purely technical matters. “Use pure colors and only a few of them,” he advised. Sometimes the lesson was moral, as when he reminded Coste always to align himself with the minority. Imai assured Coste that he was fortunate never to have attended art school. “Art schools produce drawing teachers,” Imai said.

As David Kamansky, director of the Pacific Asia Museum, points out, Imai is one of Japan’s leading painters. He takes very few students. Coste is the only Western student of Imai of whom Kamansky is aware.

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“Gerard’s work is an example of that synthesis of East and West that we find so interesting at this museum,” says Kamansky, who describes the Frenchman’s work as “spare and elegant.”

Coste’s work is highly regarded in Japan, Kamansky says. “He’s a very serious artist. There’s no feeling of dilettantism here. He thinks, breathes and lives his art.”

Coste describes his education with Imai as “a kind of miracle,” possible only because Imai is a brilliant maverick in the generally conservative world of Japanese art. Guided by his sensei, Coste began finally to understand the Zen concept of satori, or enlightenment. “If my life is ever going to make sense, I will owe it to Toshimitsu Imai,” Coste says.

In 1975, while still in Japan, Coste had his first one-man show and sold his first painting. The next step in his artistic evolution was a lonely, even frightening one. When Coste was posted to Morocco, he wondered if he’d still be able to paint without Imai’s subtle guidance.

“Who will tell me, ‘Interesting,’ ‘Good’ or nothing?” Coste wondered. But after a few months in North Africa, he found himself once again swirling a few pure colors on canvas. “Who wants to follow Buddha’s path has to kill Buddha,” Coste reminds.

The artist works in his Beverly Hills home at night--sometimes all night--using only artificial light. He quotes Japanese writer and painter, Tarjo Okamoto: “Day is for the world. Night is for the universe.”

Coste’s subject matter is the cosmos, the subatomic world and energy itself (his Pasadena show is called “Cosmic Fields, Dancing Particles”). His technique, with roots in the East and West, is almost biological, he says.

With his canvases spread before him on the floor, he kneels, closes his eyes and tries to empty his conscious mind--to reach the void. The images and energy he hopes to tap come not from the heart or mind, he says, but from some deeper, less logical, more powerful place (he calls it “the stomach.”) Then he begins to paint. “The less the mind or ego interferes, the better it is,” he says.

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In his newest work, the spontaneous whirls and dots and lines are applied to canvases that have first been covered with gold leaf or gold paint. Although the content is abstract, the paintings bring to mind traditional Japanese painting on gilded backgrounds. The canvases glow.

And, Coste’s art has enhanced his diplomatic career. “I found my niche in the cultural side of it,” he says. His professional activities have included creation of a French/Japanese journal and helping establish an international French cultural TV network. Wherever he has been posted, he has been able to establish contact with a cosmopolitan community of artists and other creative people.

“That was a blessing,” he says. Other aspects of the diplomatic service never appealed to him, notably the exercise of power. “Actually, I’m allergic to power,” he says.

Coste says the the need to paint becomes increasingly urgent. His late father began to paint in his early 50s, producing handsome representational canvases during the last decade of his life. At 50, Coste says, you realize you have to do what you most want to do. There isn’t time for anything else. “Painting is a way to the essential,” he says.

Married since 1974 to Naomi, a Japanese-American model he met in Japan, Coste has been consul general in Los Angeles since 1989. He is a devout Angelenophile. “Los Angeles has a chance to become the cultural powerhouse of the world,” he says. But he can also imagine chucking the diplomatic service at some point and moving to Tahiti to paint, as his hero Gauguin did.

His villages get larger, but he continues to long for the unfamiliar, the unknown: “I want still to be an adventurer.”

‘COSMIC FIELDS, DANCING PARTICLES’The show runs through May 12 at Pacific Asia Museum, 46 N. Los Robles Ave., Pasadena. Hours are noon to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. General admission is $3; $1.50 for seniors and students with identification.


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