Handmade paper paintings

Ronny Cohen

We all know that it takes a lot to look beyond the familiar and see the universal side of things. And that it takes even more to be able to share this gift with other people.

Though every artist likes to believe that he –or she– is blessed with this gift, in actuality, only a select few, the best of them ever are. One artist who clearly is is Francisca Sutil.

A visionary of a new, sentient sort, she is the kind of painter that dares to shine the penetrating light of inspired imagination on the world of appearances. Real in the most profound sense without necessarily being realistic, abstract, and representational without being descriptive, her paintings are illuminating enough to get at the essences and reveal even the palpable core and psychic center of reality itself. At the source of the compelling quality of her work is the deeply personal and inherently poetic approach to making art she has developed since 1978.

With her discovery of the medium of handmade paper that year, she definitively found her own way. In 1978, Francisca Sutil was already living in New York City, having come the year before to complete her studies after attending the Universidad Católica in Chile where she concentrated on printmaking. Sutil, who readily responded to the stimulation of the experimental spirit in late 70s New York art then dominated mainly by conceptualism, recalls she was involved doing a project for large scale geometric sculptures still unrealized, and making many drawings. In fact, it was her drawings of spiral forms that prompted a close friend to suggest to her to do the same images in paper relief. That fortuitous suggestion led her to consider the merits of handmade paper and, subsequently, to a major turning point in her career. Talking about her initial response to the medium of handmade paper, she says: “I was working with ideas and suddenly I discovered something very sensual that reminded me a lot of the desert, with qualities which are dry, earthy and strong”.

After just a basic, “how-to” course, Sutil mastered papermaking –a process by which pieces of cotton cloth and rags are cut up and tossed into a water filled tub or container and beaten into wet pulp– and started to develop her own techniques for combining pulp with colored pigments and various other substances and for forming sheets. As she herself remarks, she was in 1978, “in love with the material”, and attracted primarily to “its earthy quality which is so real “. It’s hardly surprising, then, that her first series deal with this “earthy quality”. The earth’s weightiness, solidity and beauty as well as its unpredictable, even dangerous nature, and its ability to ceaselessly change and renew itself are among the aspects of this quality expressed in the Earth Strata series, 1978-79. Every part of each painting, from the colors to the shapes of various sections and the compositional rhythms, is a metaphor meant to suggest different sensations and feelings about the earth. Where some examples bring to mind shapes and structures that are definitely stone-like in texture or boulder-like in structure, others evoke almost pastoral scenes of mountainous lakes and landscapes. In keeping with the theme of this series, some of the examples contain bits of earth, dill seed, sand, and alfalfa added to the colored pulps to enhance textures. Among the most striking examples from the series are the last works, which are also the biggest in size. These compositions, with their dark and dense layers of pigment, create the illusion that these paintings do not just represent the earth but have themselves become the earth, walls of earth in fact, so palpably real is the impression they make.

Between 1980 and 1982, several series dealing with specific geological formations including hills and volcanoes –other recurrent subjects of these years are rocks and lakes– demonstrate growing control of both methods and means. Although the gently rounded mounds featured in the hill paintings are so even-looking all-around that they seem to have been cut from a pattern, they are like all her forms shaped by hand. In the Volcano paintings not only do the volcanoes emerge as independent shapes and, formally, act as both figure and ground, but it was in them, the artist indicates that for the “first time I used a color not related to nature”. That color was red, of course. Her increasingly bold application of red is evident from comparison of the group of Volcano paintings. In the diptych from 1982, that combines two halves of a volcano, each half is all red except for a narrow blue streak that runs down the middle edge; the color red which seems to vibrate angrily next to the passages of blue and of the yellow that seems as sky or background, sets the high key explosive mood of this composition, the least naturalistic and most openly symbolic of the group.

The sure and sharp tone of the colors found in the paintings of these years is one of the positive results of the extensive research that Sutil successfully carried out also during this period. The special water-dispersed pigments she discovered then and continues to use are “stable colors that will never fade and are as permanent as any good oil”, she says.

In the series called Forces (1983), the energetic essence of this universal condition that all matter shares is evoked by a sophisticated method of employing abstract metaphors. Forces of all kinds –active and aggressive, outer-directed and competitive, reactive and inner-directed, passive and yielding determine the compositions. And the relationships within the paintings-how for example a large three-sided black segment bears down on the pink area below it or a blue wedge seems to hold off the advance of a spreading yellow section, as well as the emotive infrastructure or mood of these paintings, in turn, are direct equivalents to the subject at hand.

The experience of fine-tunings her approach in Forces also led Sutil to redefine her own attitude toward handmade paper in the Collage series from 1984-85. In these works, which number among the most complex to date, she is becoming increasingly open and inclusive regarding subjects, the possible metaphorical meanings that the enigmatic forms featured here with their marvelous manner of looking at once familiar and fantastic have.

Though they may be difficult to pin down representationally, the forms themselves are exceedingly specific as to what they are in terms of shape, color and surface. And there, in their sure and dynamic constructive demeanour lays their appeal, their power to trigger speculative responses from the audience, to make people care. By adapting the device of collage, Francisca Sutil, in giving freer reign to her own imagination, has liberated the pictorial potential of her painting. And this is a promising direction that she will most probably follow.

Statement of the artist

“My works stem from abstract energy. Its space, color, light and texture are very often closely related to nature. The initial concept together with the actual mixing of the colors and the manipulation of the pulp itself are to me the most important steps taken. I prepare each color carefully in order to achieve the exact tonality and color value I am looking for. Each color is then worked until it reaches the desired weight, richness, transparency or flatness. Sometimes I add different materials in order to give the color the particular texture I am after. I work with my hands manipulating the colored pulp, actually drawing with it through the surface. I do not do preliminary drawing. I work spontaneously. This way the work is charged with the energy which generated it in the first place.”

Francisca Sutil: Handmade Paper Paintings 1978-1985
Galería Época, Santiago



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