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Bruno David, owner of Bruno David Projects in The Grove, walks around the brand-new gallery and surveys the first body of work to hang on its walls: large, detailed oil paintings depicting the interiors of abandoned factories in St. Louis and Illinois, by local artist Cindy Tower. David, originally from Paris, speaks with a distinctively French accent as he explains how Tower often paints on giant canvases, sometimes measuring as much as seven by seven feet. Some of them are so large that she has to store them in nearby caves. Rather than painting from photographs, Tower ventured inside the decrepit buildings and depicted what she saw. In between sessions, she’d cover the painting with a sheet of dirty canvas and hide it in a crevice of the building where she was working. “I like paintings that have a struggle,” she says in a video about her process. Strangely chipper as she examines one site, she asks, “See the bricks? They’re really about to fall on your head.” Once when Tower was driving across the river with a painting she’d worked on, a strong wind blew it out of the back of her pickup truck. David promptly chartered a helicopter to try to find it, but they never recovered the piece.
Bruno David Projects is David’s second gallery in St. Louis–he opened his first in 2005, next to The Pulitzer and the Contemporary Art Museum in Grand Center. Today, he is joined by Keri Robertson, a sprightly, well-dressed woman whom David appointed director of Bruno David Projects. A lifelong art lover with two degrees in engineering and environmental science, this has become her chance to create a professional endeavor out of a passion she had sidelined for so long. In addition to Tower, David represents some of the most well-respected contemporary artists to date, including Ann Hamilton and Theaster Gates. “There have been many art dealers who were artists before, and one day they woke up and said, ‘Ok, I’m not good at it.’ But they love art and they want to stay in the field,” says David. “I never tried to be an artist.” “Neither of us are artists, in that sense,” says Robertson.
David will disclose the year he came to the United States (1977), but coyly conceals the age he was. “My answer is, I was very young.” Speaking no English, he came to Manhattan to work as a reporter, and wrote for various French publications on topics ranging from sports to politics. Today, he doesn’t miss the work. “I’d rather answer the questions than ask the questions,” he says. David ended up staying in New York City for almost 30 years and opened three art galleries, two in the bohemian artist sanctuary on the Lower East Side, and one in SoHo.
He’s always shown contemporary art. “Crazy, contemporary art. When I say crazy, it’s not negative,” he says. While definitions of what art can be have continually changed, it can be a strange experience to walk into a contemporary art gallery and see a single piece of string on the wall, or a large canvas that has just been painted one color. “The idea of trying to force us to ‘get’ it is so negative. It’s counterproductive,” says David. “Life is not about whether you get it or you don’t. It’s a journey. You learn from everything. ‘Is that art?’ is the wrong question to ask … it’s like asking, ‘What is a car?’ We don’t ask that question anymore. A car is just a tool that gets us from A to B.” Robertson agrees. “When you start to learn about the artist’s motivations for their work, how they felt when they did it–that adds another level of communication to it.” She brings up abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko, who painted fields of color on large canvases. He committed suicide in 1970, and the pieces remain a haunting remnant of his presence. “If you look at a Rothko for a long time, it’s going to start to tell you something.”
After overseeing galleries in Manhattan for almost 20 years, David decided to relocate in the early 2000’s. “It was time for me to move–it wasn’t one single event,” he says. “After the attack of 9/11, I was looking for a city to move to and open a new contemporary art gallery.” He closed all three galleries in New York City, and it took him a year and a half to choose where to go next. Upon visiting St. Louis, meeting artists, and seeing their studios, David was struck by what he saw. “It’s an amazing city,” he says. “It’s such a small city, and look how important the creative group of people is here. It’s gigantic, for a small city like this. You don’t find that in all cities–you’ll find that in Chicago, but Chicago is 10 times bigger than St. Louis. When it comes to the arts, and it’s not just visual art–theater, music, visual–St. Louis competes with Chicago. Easily.”
St. Louis, he says, is the perfect place for a young artist to begin her career. “St. Louis needs this young generation to stay here,” he says. “If they end up moving to LA or New York, they’re going to spend overtime working a day job to pay for the rent, and they’re not going to have any time in the studio at all. That is a terrible mistake to make when you’re 25 years old.” He implores them to stay here and hone their craft–even if they don’t plan to stay long-term.
While typically reserved about his interior life, he cracks open a bit while discussing the city. “St. Louis was one of the best cities where I could start all over again,” he says, remembering when he first came here. “I grew up in a different country and lived in a city like New York, where if you are different or from a different country, you are welcome. They embrace you. It can be different in other parts of the country, where people are not as open.” At the galleries, David doesn’t make a point of showing certain types of artists, and doesn’t choose work based on gender, race, or any factors outside of their artwork. “We don’t label them as male artists or female artists. We just show artists.”
Together, David and Robertson walk through the collection of Tower’s paintings on the walls, offering up pieces of information on each one, such as the name of the site where it was painted or the type of stretched material she used as canvas. “When you look at art, it’s going to force you to express yourself more. That’s a good thing–you don’t keep things inside,” says David. Instead of touching on his own life, he discusses how art was banned in Nazi Germany, for fear of what it could communicate and how it could empower the masses. “Anyone who wants to ban art always loses–it’s too powerful,” he says. “It’s like trying to pick a fight with God. You know who’s going to win.”
For more information about Bruno David Gallery and Bruno David Projects, visit www.brunodavidgallery.com.