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Reflecting on Resonances

Ronny Cohen

 

This exhibition of paintings is a welcome occasion for considering the work of Francisca Sutil, one of today’s gifted interpreters of Minimalism. For three decades she has continued expanding our understanding of primary structures through investigating the color-forming possibilities of non-traditional and traditional materials she has painted with, including handmade paper pulp, gesso, pigment, oil and varnish. Starting in the late 1970s relationships between the painting as an image and the painting as an object have been an integral part of her approach.

Since the late 1990s with the shifting to compositions featuring vertical bands and horizontal striations of colors, Sutil shows how paintings that at first glance that might appear “reductive” can offer impressive formal features and deep reservoirs of content. The paintings from the Resonances series and the preceding Untitled group on view in the exhibition present some of Sutil’s most compelling statements to date concerning color and the effects of its beauty, its mystery, and its expressive magnitude. Highlighting the years 2004 and 2005, the exhibition will give New York audiences their first look at the evolution her work has taken after the Transmutations, the painting series featured in the artist’s last solo show at the Nohra Haime Gallery previous to the current exhibition.

The Resonances and Untitled paintings are specially installed to showcase their superb construction and unique contemplative qualities embodied in their remarkably luminous surfaces. On display will be single and multiple linen on wood panels including variously sized squares and rectangles of unusual lengths and proportions—i.e. Resonances No. 3 and Resonances No. 8 each fifteen and a half inches high and stretching over twelve-feet across—and with some occupying two walls. Sutil’s growing mastery of pigmented gesso and oil, a medium she invented is evident in the deepening emblematic character of the individual colors and arrangements of colors produced by her with it.

As befitting the series title, the paintings with their pulsing blues, glowering reds, and glowing yellows and greens carry tremendous “resonances”. According to Sutil in a recent interview “inner movement” is an important determinant in the rhythm and placement of hues. By repeating and varying colors, and grouping chromatic variations of a single color in contiguous sequences, what might be called the surprise factor built into each surface invites viewers to see individual colors, like reds, yellows, greens, and dark blues, and placements of them freshly and freely. A new colored spectrum of Sutil’s device offers lots to discern in arrangements of colored bands each made with a single pass of an oil-loaded brush and colored marks produced with a palette knife appearing in the pigmented gesso below, with edges and configurations brought out sharply as well as brilliantly and even subtly so by a top layer of varnish.

Sutil intends no specific meanings in these paintings. She wants viewers to respond openly. “Resonances paintings are expressions of things pending,” Sutil has said. What hangs before us is a group of composition unfolding left to right and in space front to back and back to front. We follow them not once but again and again. A lot appears to be going on. The distributing of harmonious and contrasting colors, of warm and cold hues, of darks and lights values, of high and low saturations are some compositional elements that tend to be noticed.
And depending on the degree of our inclination toward pictorial metaphor they are among ones we like to pick up on.

A lively conversation on ART and LIFE ensues for those who find color abstractions speak. Key here is taking time to scrutinize these paintings through the window of our personal experiences with color per se. We can go as far as our feelings, senses and sensibilities allow. Rhythm can be seen as an equivalent of movement and change, repetition of continuity, cycles and control. Warm colors sing of hope, dark colors of loss, reds and blues of rituals, greens of spring. To those who know their art history five hundred years of Colorists from Titian, Rubens and Delacroix to Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian, Matisse, Rothko, Kelly, Marden, resounds through these iconic compositions. In the course of taking stock of the distinguishing characteristics of their layered structures, Sutil brings her audience into contact with the force that color has to move, enlighten and delight. The intense experience provided of the universal language of color brings one of Kandinsky’s most influential statements on color from his 1911 writings on “The Effects of Color” into the twenty-first century. “Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another purposively, to cause vibrations in the soul.”

In how they reverberate with emotive and suggestive values, the rich and essential qualities of these paintings are representative of the new vision of 1970s Minimalism’s “less is more” aesthetic emerging in Sutil’s paintings in the last decade. For Sutil, Minimalism has proved a source and touchstone for paintings done in every period of her career.

Born in Santiago in 1952, Sutil lives and works in Chile’s capital and largest city. From 1971 to 1976 she studied ART at the art school of the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile in Santiago where she took courses in printmaking and engraving. Sutil spent one year, 1971-72 studying figurative drawing at Southern Methodist University in Dallas on a scholarship she won. Sutil has disclosed in a recent interview she would have studied painting in art school in Santiago but she was “too unconnected” to the academic method of painting it taught.

From 1977 to 1992 Sutil resided in New York City. In her first years there she completed her studies of art at classes, workshops, and seminars at Parsons School of Design, Pratt Institute, and the Whitney Museum--some of New York’s most prestigious institutions. Sutil received an M.F.A. degree from Pratt Institute in 1981. Like many young artists, Sutil, who was in her twenties when she entered onto it, found for herself a superb learning ground in New York City’s active art scene.

Sutil has recalled, “Minimalism had a big impact on me in the late 70s when I arrived in New York”. One of her most memorable experiences was attending an Agnes Martin exhibition at the Robert Elkon Gallery. “I remember being mesmerized by Agnes Martin’s paintings. I spent so much time looking at them that the dealer, Mr. Elkon finally came out from his office and started talking to me, asking about my interest in the work.”

Sutil adds, “At the time, I was doing very earthy handmade paper pieces, nothing at all related to Martin’s paintings, but the silence, the open interpretation, the quietness, the light, the pencil lines, the pink in some of them left a deep impression on me. Something was suspended in them. That suspension is what interested me, not only in Martin’s paintings. Other artists of that time moved me in similar ways”. In this group, she lists Brice Marden, Larry Bell, Eva Hesse, each of whom then was associated with Minimalism, Conceptual artist Agnes Denes, and especially for his late paintings Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko.

Sutil is describing in her account the power certain contemporary works of art have to hold viewers fixed in wonder. Her interests in this power and the conditions, qualities, situations which necessarily have to be present to make this so, are, I believe, intrinsic to who she is as an artist. This is Sutil’s arena of action. She has been exploring it with passion and insight for three plus decades now. And is continuing to rack up new successes with each major body of work and series she produces.

Starting with the handmade paper pulp paintings she was occupied with from the late 1970s through mid 1980s, Sutil reveals the adventurous, pioneering and methodical treatment of material, technique and process, combined with an intuitive knack for metaphor causing her efforts to stand out. While Sutil was among the artists interested in paper in the late 1970s, a period when the material was enjoying a new-found popularity, she did not follow the crowd in terms of which aspect she wanted to work with. In contrast to many taken with its sculptural potentials, Sutil was intrigued by the idea of painting with it; even though the colors she had in mind did not exist. If she wanted them she would have to make them herself.

This was exactly what she did. Sutil learned all she could about paper pulp and color, going so far as to undertake a joint research project with the inventor of acrylic paint to determine which pigments best integrated with the pulp and would not fade with time. The project was supported by a grant she received from the Organization of American States. She invented her own techniques for painting with pigment colored pulp. Sutil’s handmade paper pulp pieces with their vivid hues and large dimensions—(i.e. seven-feet)—are some of the best paintings ever done in that medium and not for their physical properties alone. In a show of knowledge is power, Sutil’s thorough understanding of the material allowed her to transcend the material producing bold abstractions treating correspondences between geometry and nature the equal of any canvases.

Sutil applied the same can-do disciplined experimental attitude to the next non-traditional material she turned her attention to in 1986 – 1987. For centuries gesso was applied to panels and walls to prepare their surfaces to be painted on. In 1986 -1987 Sutil wanted to use the material’s receptivity to pigment in a new way, and paint directly with it. Gesso would be the surface, the top and bottom layer of the painting. As she did with paper, Sutil studied gesso intensely. She took special instruction in making and applying gesso from a painter who was expert in its traditions and usages. Using the antique formula of zinc oxide, calcium carbonate and rabbit skin glue, she mixed gesso and colored pigments into a new material she called “pigmented gesso.” She began painting with it.

The building up and sanding down of colored gesso with pigments, the adding of marks and incidents putting palette knife to the tactile relief surfaces yielded enigmatic abstractions in such series as Fragments of Life, 1990, and Voices of silence, 1991-92, which felt like interiorized landscapes to many. In the series Cerebrations, 1993 – 1996, oil applied in small areas and the appearance of lines altered the paintings in ways she wanted to explore further.

In 1997 she began doing pigmented gesso and oil paintings containing three layers—the top varnish, the second oil and third pigmented gesso applied to linen mounted on board. This is how paintings done over the last decade are constructed. Vertical bands of colors painted in oil are featured in the series and groups comprising this body of paintings. Colored horizontal lines and striations appearing in the pigmented gesso layer have emerged as expressive motives in recent examples including the Resonances and Untitled paintings.

Sutil put research in consulting with painting specialists to find which varnish would best suit her explorations of light and transparency, and bring colors out from the oil and pigmented gesso layers. The bands are painted in oil in a one-shot application of the brush requiring concentration and a willingness to take risks. The pigmented gesso and oil paintings include Spaces, a 1998 – 1999 series, the work commissioned for The Cruz Chapel in Santiago, 1999 to 2001, Transmutations, a 2001- 2003 series, the Untitled group from 2004, and the Resonances of 2004 – 2005. Sutil’s ongoing interest in the essential relationships that bind colors, spaces and contents is underscored in the succession of series and groups of paintings.

The different series and groups abound with references to artists, art historical and cultural developments, and humanistic themes. In addition to the Colorists and Minimalism, the paintings have addressed Modernism, religion, the cycle of life and death, love, touch, feeling, thought, memory and time. As in earlier examples the aesthetic moorings of the Resonances paintings are located in Minimalism with its inculcation of an analytical approach toward material, process and technique, and its elevation of the importance of basing painting and every art work on integral relationships among component elements. Filled with beauty, emanating mystery the Resonances demonstrate how while color can indeed be the “keyboard”, materials hold the score. The artist is the composer. Charged with associations the paintings in this exhibition are indicative of the challenging direction Sutil is exploring in developing her new rich twenty-first century style of Minimalism.

Ronny Cohen © 2007

   
 
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