The Paintings of Francisca Sutil



Process art is often a record of its own coming into being. Its roots are in Abstract-Expressionism. One thinks of Jackson Pollock’s poured paintings, and the influence they subsequently have had on generations of painters and sculptors. The main issue for the first generation of artists who tried to pick up where Pollock left off, was how to maximize the inherent properties of a material other than what he used, which was enamel paint. They wanted a certain liquidity to be inherent to their medium, but they didn’t want to appear to be derivative. Some artists used acrylic, others used melted lead. In the case of painting, many artists and critics believed that Pollock had reached a dead end, that there was nowhere else to go, nothing left to do. So began the belief that painting had died, and many artists either moved into other mediums or presided over the funeral.

            Others, most notably Jasper Johns, not only started elsewhere, but did what many hoped could still be done; he made paintings. The logic unifying Johns’s materials (encaustic) and subject matter (flags and targets) was not predicated on pouring enamel, acrylic, or lead, but on reconstructing a perceptual moment. Whereas Pollock initiated a new way to draw in paint, Johns utilized a wide range of processes and materials in his attempt to accurately reconstruct a specific perceptual moment. For both artists, the individual’s existence amidst time and change was a central issue, something their peers and younger artists failed to grasp.

            In his first black paintings, Frank Stella simplified Johns’s understanding of perception, how it reveals something about the individual’s existence in time, by using a single color to fulfill a narrow impeccable logic. In Stella’s case, the shape of the canvas determined the width of the bands of black paint, as well as their configuration of repetition. One could say that Stella worked from the outside edge toward the center, while Johns found the materials that would enable him to reconstruct an insightful perceptual moment. Thus Stella contextualizes his paintings with the observation, “What you see is what you see”; and Jasper Johns points back to the world when he contextualizes his subject matter as being “Things seen but not looked at”.

            It is against this complex and various history, its ongoing arguments and irresolvable oppositions, that Francisca Sutil’s paintings should be seen. Not because she is carrying on this or that tradition, but because she has reached her own understanding of perception through the process of painting, and this understanding connects to those artists who wished to understand the individual’s existence amidst time’s passing. All of Sutil’s recent paintings are titled Cerebrations and are numbered, most likely in the sequence in which they have been completed. They are either large squares or a diptych comprised of two squares abutted together. By titling the series, Cerebrations, Sutil links the act of thinking with the act of painting, the mind with the body. The implication being that you can’t separate the two. Paintings do not exist in a realm that is purely visual. They are not simply things to be seen and appreciated on an aesthetic level. The process of doing should work in a tandem with the process of thinking, which, in Sutil’s paintings, they do.

            What an impossible but essential and important task Sutil has set for herself. To make the act of thinking both visible and palpable, particularly when that act is directed towards the shifting edge of the unknowable, as well as towards the realm of invisible. Even when someone has an easily grasped agenda, which Sutil doesn’t, thinking is not a transparent act easily understood. We are a mystery to ourselves, as well as to others. However, as Sutil knows and makes evident in her paintings, there is a difference between mystery and obfuscation.


At the beginning of her career Sutil’s principal medium was handmade paper. In the mid 1980s, she began working with paint, using it in a way that connected to her earlier use of handmade paper. Since then she has expanded upon this process, achieving a wide range of possibilities. In the Cerebrations series, she suspended pigment in gesso, and used large flexible blades to apply it to her surfaces. The smooth, striated surfaces of her paintings evoke comparisons with polished stones; they reveal themselves slowly. Their patterns are regular and unpredictable, as well as disrupted and overlapping, as if two systems are passing through each other. In Cerebrations #7, an irregular band made of small, irregular circles runs down the painting near the left edge. The band of circles seems to be both pushing into the painting, as well as being pushed out.

            In Cerebrations #8, the veil of yellow striations is vertical, while in Cerebrations #6, the yellow striations are horizontal. Behind the veil and suspended in a deeper layer are faint green vertical bands. In Cerebrations #3, the yellow striations swirl out from two different centers, one near the lower right hand corner, the other near the upper left hand corner. Here, the geological associations the paintings evoke seem particularly apt. the formation of the earth was a process which was often violent; the surface was disrupted by volcanoes, as well as was struck by meteors and other extraterrestrial matter. And yet, other processes (the various seasons and the effects of time) may have submerged the most obvious evidence of violent rupture. What we see is not necessarily what occurred. Time passes, changing all things.

            Sutil knows that thinking is not a linear process. One’s thinking is disrupted both from within and from without. Sutil has linked thinking and doing to both painting and the geological formation of earth, reminding us that each is contingent upon the other. The process she uses in her paintings is directed towards expansive possibilities, rather tan towards leaving evidence of each of the steps she has taken.

            Each of the Cerebrations is a layered surface in which the viewer sees evidence of its earlier history, as well as the final accumulation of that history. The coloristic and tonal shifts run the gamut from the subtle and minute to the broad and readily apparent. Not all that has gone into the painting is visible, only what remains, which is what is necessary. Thinking if it is to become action is predicated to some degree on the necessary. And yet, as Sutil knows, what is necessary is not necessarily predetermined. One cannot know one’s thinking in advance. One cannot know what will happen before it does. To begin with that understanding of reality and proceed is exactly what Sutil does in her paintings. This is what connects Sutil to Pollock, as well as to Johns and even to Chuck Close.

            The practice of painting, the combined act of thinking and doing –these are the steps of longing and faith embodied within Sutil’s work. Her Cerebrations are pointed simultaneously outward and inward. That she cannot tell us either the origins of her thought (where her paintings began) or her final destination (each Cerebration has so far led to another) conveys the rigorousness of her faith in painting, her belief that it can bring us to the place where thinking becomes visible (though not transparent) and seeing begins. In their radiant densities and tactile surfaces, the paintings themselves make Sutil’s faith and longing evident.

Cerebrations. Nohra Haime Gallery, New York. October-November 1995


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