John Yau

By the time we got there we were already alive, but what exactly did that look like
and who exactly was looking.
Cole Swensen

Francisca Sutil began her career in the late 1970s, making two-dimensional, cast paper pieces which extended out of postwar geometric abstraction. Through her experience with paper pulp, which required her to both accumulate and integrate separate layers, Sutil gained insight into one of modernism’s persistent issues: Can one marry medium, surface, and form without suppressing one in favor of the others. Thus, while Sutil initially focused her attention on the casting of paper pulp, it seems apparent from the direction she has since taken, that she wanted to address Jackson Pollock’s pourings of paint, Morris Louis’s investigations of paint’s relationship to gravity and support, and Ellsworth Kelly’s unities of opticality and physical shape. Thus, in retrospect, her decision to work with paper pulp seems to have been informed not only by her desire to explore the relationship between medium and support, but also to learn how each might be made to acknowledge the other.

            By the mid 1980s, both restless and increasingly dissatisfied with her growing mastery of paper making, Sutil began searching for another way to unify medium, surface, and object. The reason she searched so arduously for a solution was because she has never simply wanted to apply paint to a two-dimensional surface. Rather, and perhaps her original desire was steadily reinforced by her decade long engagement with paper making. Sutil wanted to reach a kind of ground zero, and thus discover how a medium, surface, and support could be made to engage in a meaningful visual dialogue.

            Morris Louis seems to be one of her predecessors. However, in contrast to Louis, whose ribbons of poured paint resulted unwittingly in an optical, nearly bodiless image, Sutil has never been interested in either color field’s optical bodilessness or its fiction of timelessness. Rather, central to Sutil’s work is both an awareness of the body, its inevitable transformations, and time passing.

            If anything, her desire to reframe the traditional relationship of paint and support can de understood as an attempt to reenvision the all-overness of the grid, and its emphasis on the equal distribution of mark (or medium) over surface. Instead of focusing solely on the mark’s relationship to the surface plane, she wants the materials themselves –liquid medium and canvas– to interact with, as well as interrupt each other in ways that are meaningful. One could say that she wants to discover what the processes and materials she uses will reveal. For her, the possibility of meaning emerges during the course of making the layering evident. Acknowledging time, rather than achieving an image of timelessness, becomes what is important.

From the late 1980s until the late 90’s, Sutil both developed and explored technically demanding techniques which she had derived from her study of 15th century Spanish panel painting. These techniques enabled the artist to define her medium as both solid matter and luminous color, as well as underscore the importance of both the field of paint, its various marks, and the physical support. In Atma, 1989, and Ieve, 1989-1990, for example, she abutted two shaped panels (linen mounted on wood) along a symmetrical seam, giving the paintings a physical, almost sculptural presence.

            At the same time, her applications of pigment suspended in gesso resulted in luminous, layered fields that are simultaneously transparent and materially insistent. The paintings are both solid objects and a highly compressed, layered space. It is a space we might regard as both feminine and self-sufficient, and thus profoundly bold in their obvious delicacy. In contrast to the spatiality of 19th century landscapes, say, Sutil’s geological compressions don’t invite entry. Their depth is both granular and radiant. Flecks of light and a porous materiality seem to exchange identities.

            Starting in the late 1980s, Sutil’s subtly shifting, monochromatic paintings reveal her growing interest in the relationship between solidity and light. Although her work can be aligned with minimalism, and she seems to be defining herself as a post-minimalist painter, one has to regard Sutil’s interest in solidity and translucency, materiality and light, as a sign of her belief in paint as a metaphysical vehicle, a way of discovering aspects of the spiritual within the physical, and vice versa. Such thinking puts her squarely in the tradition that includes both Alfred Jensen and Brice Marden.

            Thus, Sutil believes that painting can be redemptive and exhilarating. And, because of her desire to work within, as well as extend from, a tradition that is foregrounded in the means (or process), rather than the end (or product), Sutil not only consciously locates herself and her art within modernism’s unfolding, but she also is proposing that modernism’s shift to postmodernist possibilities need not devolve into either parody or irony.

            Here, I would further suggest that not only is there a growing historical awareness that modernism may have shifted from a patriarchal (or heroic) possibility to a feminine (or generative) possibility, but it is also an important, if largely unacknowledged, viewpoint in the ongoing discourse over abstract art’s vitality. Certainly, there is an urgent need to recognize how many strong women artists are currently pushing the boundaries of abstraction into new realms of speculation. For, although women artists such as Dorothea Rockburne, Merrill Wagner, Pat Steir, Carolee Toon, Nancy Haynes, Andrea Belag, Lydia Dona, Joan Waltemath, Victoria Civera, and Sarah Sosnowy would most likely not declare themselves to be feminists, all of them have achieved a singular distinction in their work. The presence of women abstract artists living and working outside of America –and I am thinking of Francisca Sutil who lives in Chile or Katharina Grosse who lives in Germany– offers further proof that a very real and important historical shift has occurred.

In the Cerebrations series, which immediately precedes Spaces, the series of paintings in this exhibition, Sutil, as I mentioned earlier, suspended pure pigment in gesso, which she applied with long flexible blades. The paintings are palimpsests, an accumulation of nearly indistinguishable layers. For with their striated surfaces and light radiating from within, the Cerebrations can be compared to stones polished by the ocean’s constant motion; they reveal themselves slowly.

            Sutil’s interest in deep time and geological processes stems in part from travelling alone through the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile. Alone in this vast environment, she recognized that the individual’s relationship to reality transcends anything social, and that cosmic reality supersedes all others. One imagines that within this understanding of reality, Sutil’s insight into her own process, and her interest in layering, took on an even larger meaning.

            In her collapsing together of small, irregularly placed circles, striations ranging from the radiant to the vertical, and shifting tonalities, the viewer feels as if different perceptual orders (or systems) are passing through each other, almost as if they are unaware of the other. Here, we might find it useful to remember that physical existence can be understood as the intersection of many different perceptual levels and seemingly self-contained, yet contingent systems. While each system of understanding reality is accurate, none of them is total. Thus, the individual, for example, can de defined as made up of flesh and blood, as well as wavelengths and electrons.

            The Cerebrations are records of the sweeping, rubbing process by which Sutil applied her medium. They are evidence of the artist’s physical movement, and thus include aspects of change, assertion, destruction, and upheaval. According to Sutil, it was because of her deep physical engagement with the medium, and her arduous method of applying it to both a surface and an object, that she conceived of her recent series Spaces (1998-99).

Done on raw, earth-colored linen, Spaces consists of vertical bands of color which are not only abutted together, but seem to overlap, as well as subtly interact. The narrow bands (or strips) of glowing color remind one of semi-transparent ribbons separating one room (or realm) from another. Stopped well short of the painting’s top and bottom edge, the narrow bands manage to assert their independence, even as they acknowledge their dependence on the surface.

            Thus, seen from a distance, the vertically oriented configuration of bands distinguishes itself from the surface. However, when one moves closer, one becomes aware of the grain of the linen beneath each smooth band of monochromatic color. For, rather than covering the entire surface, as one might expect, Sutil applies the bands so that they form a square within the painting’s rectangle. Substantial areas of raw linen are visible above and below. By establishing this interaction, the artist is able to make both the process and the support explicit. As with Cerebrations, all the Spaces are palimpsests.

            The bands shift both tonally and coloristically, and seemingly conform to no preconceived pattern or ideal. In some of the Spaces, there are no contrasts between dark and light, subtle tonal shifts, and changes in color. The physicality of the linen’s weave is always apparent. Thus, while the bands are lushly present, even in their palest manifestations of grays, whites, and off-whites, they are also as delicate as that first thin skin of ice that covers a lake in early winter.

            It is this paradoxical aspect of Sutil’s use of paint that first holds our attention; and it enables us to recognize other paradoxes. For while the viewer is conscious of the raw linen, the bands of translucent color hint at a space that seems flooded with light. One feels as if an interior (or interiorized) light has been made to pass through these bands, as through a prism. The paintings suggest that within the things of this world, and one of these things is a bolt of raw linen, light is present. As Sutil uses it, paint becomes a way of revealing a layered space, however paradoxical, elusive, fragile, and momentary.

            At the same time, in contrast to the physically insistent verticality of the bands, the unpainted areas (or raw linen) can read as horizontal rectangles. Located above and below the vertical bands, these physical rectangles impart an architectonic dimension to the painting. For example, one can associate the vertical bands with a Doric column’s fluting, while the rectangles of raw linen can be read as lintel and base. And yet, while the association with classical architecture comes readily to mind, such perceptions are not necessarily foremost in the artist’s mind.

            The architectonic association of post and lintel pushes the painting beyond any reductive art historical category. Is the painting an image, a record of a process, or a layered space? Are the bands referring to architecture, to color and light, or to the coloristic shifts that occur when one changes chords in music? In terms of their palette, while the greens, grays, blacks, and reds evoke nature as a possible source, the viewer can detect no obvious or direct link to the observable world. Nature may be the inspiration, but these paintings are not abstractions of the visible world. If anything, they rigorously resist that interpretation. Thus, unable to reduce the painting to a familiar art historical perception, the viewer is compelled to enter a place where the act of looking becomes possible once again. Such looking is not an homage to wonderment, and the feeling that it is forever lost; it is wonderment itself.

Like the Atacama Desert Sutil once travelled through, the paintings comprising Spaces are both harsh and lush, austere and sensual. They provoke us to resist coming to conclusions about the reality we inhabit; and, in doing so, invite us to contemplate what is before us. In her ability to bring into a painting both the harsh and the lush, both extreme dryness and wet sensual light, Sutil has pushed painting into an area of speculation that seems particular to her concerns and no one else’s. With these paintings, she has entered into a territory all her own.

Spaces. Norah Haime Gallery, New York. October-November 1999.



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