Inevitable antonyms: The paintings of Francisca Sutil

Terry R. Myers

The great truth, or the absolute truth, makes itself
visible to our mind through the invisible.
Georges Vantongerloo

Keeping Vantongerloo’s idea in mind, Francisca Sutil has made several recent paintings that embody concretely a range of experiences impossible to articulate in complete or accurate terms. As family members in the particular lineage of abstract painting in which substantial content comes from numerous directions, they seem to have emerged fully formed, a powerful visual and structural condition that later comes as a surprise when one learns that Sutil has just recently turned undivided to the medium. Charting what has now become a distinctive path, for some time she had been making substantial work with the rather outré material of handmade paper –a telling circumstance that clearly impacts upon these canvases, particularly in terms of the painting process that she has subsequently developed; a method then quickly forgotten (but not dismissed) because it is not made conspicuous in the surfaces. Sutil’s work simultaneously demonstrates inevitability and encapsulates self-evidence. This near-incongruity results from the qualities added to the work through earthly things like formal and technical achievements –accomplishments which are immediately eclipsed by more expansive issues. The impact of Sutil’s paintings falls far beyond either what physically goes into them or how they look, telescoping finally into deeper, often oppositional, territory.

Unlike painters who attempt to imbue their work with clearly explicated spiritual content, Sutil deliberately is not dogmatic about the meaning in her work, despite the distinctive references in some of her titles. While she often can be profoundly affected by much of the philosophy –particularly Eastern, although she does not specialize– that she has been studying intently for the past two decades, she is not mystical about it. To her, these things should be integrated into one’s life as part of the everyday, and not treated in a cabalistic fashion. Therefore, she does not use her work to illustrate or propagate the ideas of others. If this were her goal, she would have little chance at achieving it, because the thought would remain only applied and not incorporated. Almost as a check to prevent such a flaw, her paintings remain in the realm of solid objects –entities poised to provoke a contemplative situation that quite possibly could activate a similar sensation to that of the spiritual texts with which she is familiar. Sutil’s paintings thrive on contradictions, particularly because they remind us in no uncertain terms that it is both strange and necessary to attempt the transference of unknowable things by way of the tremendously tangible activity of painting. The continued practice of this type of painting helps keep mystery imbedded in our common lives, which is where it belongs.

Things are never what they seem at first glance in Sutil’s work. In a painting like Correspondence, for example, she presents a canvas containing what appears to be two equal areas of unequal color. The red on the left exhibits horizontal marks, while the violet on the right is made up of vertical strokes that allow submerged areas of red to surface. This results in what can be seen as an intrinsic requirement for Sutil’s paintings: questions concerning technical processes naturally lead to an expanded, deep meaning. One wonders, at first, whether this red that is emerging from below on the right side was first laid down across the entire canvas, and if so, then one perceives that the addition of the violet to the right half of the painting disturbs the implied equivalence, and one is left with a very clear correlation that previously was hidden.

Sutil is frank about her problems with the physical conditions of canvas –its imperfections, warp, weave. Consequently, she makes her paintings with a rigorous, stratified method that explicitly denies the support. Using large flexible blades on a uniformly gessoed surface, she applies layers upon layers of pigment or oil until the literal surface seems to consist more of polished stone than of paint. Often she will add graphite to the mixture, creating a sheen that reinforces the effect. It is a laborious, repetitive procedure that involves large amounts of physical effort. One should not be surprised that the exertion is not evidenced in the surfaces –Sutil fuels her conceptual goals for multiple, significant contradictions by imbedding discrepancies directly into her method. Making something that appears to be unavoidable is hard work, but sublimating the strain somehow increases the strength of Sutil’s art.

Three of Sutil’s paintings have specific titles; one of which, Ungrund, makes reference to Jakob Böhme, a German mystic from the 17th century and a clear source for Sutil’s own intentions. Harriet Watts, in her Arp, Kandinsky, and the legacy of Jakob Böhme, condensed one of his beliefs in the following:

In Böhme’s cosmos, matter, neither transcended nor dismissed as illusion, is subject to progressive transmutations through which it may reach the sublime state of divine corporeality, the materialized form in which the divinity is able to recognize and take pleasure in itself. This divine self-awareness is predicated on the confrontation and interaction of contraries, whereby the undifferentiated One can manifest itself through division into two, revealing each aspect of itself in terms of its opposite. (In The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985. Los Angeles and New York, 1986, p.245)

Böhme invented the word “Ungrund” to name the “One” and Sutil has created a painting that embodies many of the conditions for his definition. The painting is not, however, merely a translation of his ideas. By extending the upper right corner of the panel away from the rectangle, Sutil creates an aggressive shape that forces a new sensibility into her version on the complex spiritual coexistence of opposites. She turns her painting into a character with a real life of its own that is powerfully expressed by the directional movement made explicit in its outline.

With Atma and Ieve, Sutil firmly establishes the appropriateness of a consideration of her paintings as primary, solid entities. By using two of the many sacred names for a higher being and/or a “Higher Self”, Sutil demonstrates that her works are best named with specific, non-descriptive terms. Composed of many forceful elements, both of these paintings personify light as a transcendental, yet substantial thing. As one reaches the center of each painting, the yellow increases in intensity –it is more abrupt in Ieve than in Atma because of the former’s use of red. It is essential that in the middle of each work there is an actual, physical seam between two panels. These breaks abruptly end any discussion of labyrinthine things as the “Void”. Sutil does not allow her work to be released into the amorphousness of some form of spiritual infinity where immaterial ideas are unobtainable and continually shifting. Therefore, the outline of Atma, for example, has a shape that suggests that the viewer should physically grasp the painting, hanging on to absorb as much from touch as from sight. Sutil makes work that articulates a meaning that is both individual and immovable, while at the same time fundamentally unstated, unknown and unavoidable.

Francisca Sutil

Nohra Haime Gallery, New York

April, 1990


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