"I like its uniqueness," Executive Director said simply, when asked what he likes best about Ernesto Costa's work. "I've never seen a painting like that," Edmonds continued, pointing at the 1995 Costa acrylic "Wounded Bird I." "Ernesto uses the paint itself to let the viewer feel," he said, "you can literally see that the bird is in pain. It's very emotional."
Ernesto Costa was born in Brooklyn in 1926,* acquiring a house in Shinnecock Hills later in life, and developing a talent for his own emotional style of art early on. A member of the Lincoln Art Squad, in which he worked with notable artists like Alexander Calder, he attended college at in New York and at a school in the Southern Appalachians, which would prove inspirational to his later works.
"He went to Black Mountain College in North Carolina," Edmonds said, "it was known for studies in abstract expressionism, and that's where Ernesto got a lot of his inspiration. Black Mountain wanted a fresh approach to painting, not an academic approach."
"Fresh" and "eclectic" are two words that instantly spring to mind when trying to define Costa's works. "He was constantly experimenting," Edmonds enthused, "so there are a lot of different artistic styles here. But I don't think most people know about him. His wife [Judith Ann Costa, who recently published a book on Costa's life and art] is trying to get him and his work brought to light."
Stepping into the exhibition, the first painting to catch the eye is "Rembrandt" (2000, oil), a haunting portrait of the Dutch master painter as rendered by Costa in a brighter version of the color palette of the Dutch Golden Age. To the left is a lineup of oil self-portraits from 1977 to 1990 showing Costa himself in various stages of age with a pensive, slightly wary expression in each painting. The two earliest self-portraits feature the artist wearing an open collar; the later years find him more dapper, with a perfectly knotted, executive-worthy red tie upon his white shirts.
"He worked at Grey Advertising during the '50s and '60s, eventually becoming a vice president," Edmonds explained, "but even though he had a full-time job, he kept on painting. He must have been very energetic — and his heart was very much in it."
In contrast to Costa's more traditional portrait works are such pieces as "Expressway Alarm" (1990, oil), which is more haphazard, with vibrant car-crash oranges leaping off of the canvas; "Chess Game" (1991, oil), which hints at both Dali and Matisse as a boy peers around the corner at a winged lion hovering above a chessboard; and the Picasso-reminiscent "The Concert" (1992, oil), with its casual brush strokes representing two violinists and a coyote on a mottled background.
"He was definitely influenced in part by the Cubists," Edmonds said.
Several watercolor works also make appearances, including the tranquil 1992 work "Beach Scene," which Edmonds compared to American modern artist Milton Avery. Another watercolor, "The Toy" (1992, watercolor), focuses on what appears to be a masked animal with a jaunty scarf riding atop a toy airplane; this is another departure of styles, as it looks almost like a cartoon animation cel.
"Yes, it does," Edmonds agreed, chuckling, "he liked to play — there's such a joy to his work."
Along with the quality of Costa's art is plenty of quantity, too, according to Edmonds. "He just loved to paint."
The ” art exhibition will open with on Saturday from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Southampton Historical Museum's Rogers Mansion. Admission is free for the reception. The exhibition itself will run from Jan. 22 to April 30, Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; admission is $4 for adults, free for members and for those 17 and under.
*Correction: In an earlier version of this article, Ernesto Costa's birth year was incorrect. He was born in 1926.