The Consecration of Color

Edward Shaw

Francisca Sutil paints for the benefit of the soul. In her native Chile, the celebration of the soul is commonplace. An artist can still ‘paint’ a chapel that is dedicated to worship; not just an installation, set in the sterile confines of an art museum. An artist can design his own coffin with the sole purpose of inhabiting it when the appropriate moment arrives.

Artful speculation is not a factor when Francisca Sutil prepares a project. She takes her time, lets her thoughts decant, her emotion extinguish the flame of impulse, and her sensations mellow into meditations, before she takes that fatal first step. Spontaneity comes later, in an avalanche of deft brushstrokes that sweep the surface of the support from edge to edge.

Sutil is a poised person, a contained volcano like the many that arise above her Santiago studio. She is moved by a subliminal force like the tides of the Pacific Ocean that churn ceaselessly off the coast of the awesome Cordillera. Product of a “crazy geography”, as writer Benjamin Subercaseaux described his beloved strip of distant south, and of a society withdrawn into the quietude of the antipodes, Sutil found her equanimity living abroad, mostly in New York.

Now an amalgam of two civilizations, Sutil remains true to her early existence, a world dominated by family ritual and constant proximity to the spiritual. In her case, the origins are Roman Catholic, of the variety that the conquistadores brought to South America 400 years ago. Its flavor is as pagan as it is esoteric, as raw as it is refined. Life in Chile, when not a replica of diluted European formulas, is a schizophrenic search for an intermediate identity, one that denies any native roots, while shunning the challenges of a postmodern future.

Sutil sidesteps the immediate and flees the superficial in her work, as well as in her life. Ever since she began to paint on canvas, after intense involvement with papermaking as an approach to painting, she set her sights on intangible goals. Earlier in her career, the emphasis was on the consecration of life through painting as an act of total devotion.

In a text titled “Mortal Process, Inevitable Longing: the paintings of Francisca Sutil”, for the catalog of her show at this gallery in 1995, John Yau wrote: “… she has reached her own understanding of perception through the process of painting. (…) Sutil links the act of thinking with the act of painting, the mind with the body. (…) What an impossible … task Sutil has set for herself: to make the act of thinking both visible and palpable, particularly when that act is directed toward the shifting edge of the unknowable, as well as towards the realm of the invisible.”

Since 1995, Sutil has moved imperceptibly closer to that “shifting edge of the unknowable”. In her case, an indomitable faith permits her to dance at the brink, without any fear of falling. She poises herself on the razor’s edge of one woman’s eternity, looking the abysm straight in the eye. And she does not tremble as her ambitious brushstrokes leave their mark on the canvas with uncanny precision.

Yau catches the spirit of this artist’s essence: an active mind with dexterous hands. The mind challenges the invisible, and the hand caresses its frail corporality. There is no embrace, of course, and what we see is an impassioned portrait of an intention, the register of a wish in process. The parameters of the invisible become more visible. We are talking of miniscule movements, infinitesimal shifts.

It is evident that scale and skin take on different dimensions in Sutil’s work. One must be aware of these subtleties when positioning her in the pantheon of her peers. She comes to abstraction with a different preparation and more personal priorities. Rather than lay out a colored surface for a viewer’s instant satisfaction, she produces a geological layering of colors. The discerning eye is drawn into the construct of the texture, and gradually penetrates the surface, into a luminous world that radiates from within. The essence is trapped inside the paint, and not on the surface alone.

Each painting possesses a personality that must be discovered as it gradually reveals its tale to the attentive and acquiescent observer, to the believer. The capacity to unravel invisibility is based on an act of faith. You must believe that you can ‘see’ more than what the eye can capture, perceive beyond the transparencies of paint and the arrangement of brushstrokes.

In 1999, John Yau wrote another thought-provoking essay on Sutil’s work for her double exhibition at this gallery and Grant Selwyn Fine Art, titled ‘Spaces’. “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. (…) 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.” He closed the essay with a pertinent observation: “With these paintings, she has entered into a territory all her own.”

Sutil was at ease with her search by 1999. She had proven, on a battleground as tough and unforgiving as New York that she was no one’s mimic, no one’s watered-down disciple. She reigned over “a territory all her own”. By now, her priorities were shifting, transporting her closer to that inevitable “edge of the unknowable”. She was more concerned with looking into the void than looking back at the known.

We are ready, now, to take on the challenge that led to this exhibition. “Transmutations” is a set of paintings as ambitious as life itself and as definitive as death. Just before starting this series, without realizing where it would lead her, Sutil took on an inspiring commission that was crucial in triggering a change of pace in her work and a change of direction in her life. She was given a self-contained tower on a private estate near Santiago as well as the means to transform this austere chapel into a bewildering consecration of color.

Creating the climate for a sanctuary requires attuning oneself with dimensions that surpass the pedestrian. It was evident that she would work with the elements that she knew best: color and light. She would be more like an orchestra director than a Renaissance master; her contribution would be to distribute a symphony of color in harmonic patterns and, with the magic of light and shadow, create an ambience that would throb with the resonance of transcendence.

The result was a space that glowed like an illuminated manuscript brought to life. A constant crescendo of color transported the mind beyond the grip of memory and the distractions of desire, where a universal oneness replaced the static of the ego. Color spoke in a medley of voices, as clear and concise as if each tone were the representation of a parable or a lesson.

Sutil spent two years instilling the chapel with the pith of life and a glimmer of afterlife. When the project was completed, she knew her next step had to be a forward-moving one. There was no turning back. She centered her focus on her own existence, on her own commitment to life. She was aware, as never before, of the potential of its infiniteness. She had passed beyond Yau’s “shifting edge of the unknowable”. She had become one with the “invisible”.

She began working on a project that was first exhibited in Santiago, Chile. It was the most ambitious undertaking of her career, indeed, of her life. The presentation has two poignant focal points; each nourishes the other. One is definitive, the other conjectural. One is unfolding, the other a closed book. Both are extraordinary in different ways.

The first is thirty-five lineal feet of hot and cold color, a gigantic painting marching in bar-code clarity across a gallery wall painted in pale gray. The work travels from conception to extinction--or from “birth” to “the end”, with seven intermediate phases—as the lower edge of the lifelong work is inscribed. It is a remarkable visual autobiography.

The second focal point stood in the center of the gallery space, a coffin, limited in tonal vibrations to the hues of yellow. It is a casket that Sutil commissioned in Italy—according to precise specifications—for the end of the road when the red of vitality is extinguished, and the being enters into the sun-toned spectrum of yellow, where the divine—or the diabolic—in each person takes charge.

Western art rarely touches on themes like death with specific images or artifacts. Sutil makes her stand in a manner that is more sacred than macabre, more poetic than morbid. It is strong, it can even be traumatic, but that, in the end, is the objective and purpose of art when vocation sweeps the artist in the right direction and commitment is obsessive.

Her path touched nine states: “birth, growth, love, weakness, abandonment, the journey, the glimpse, death, the end”. Her division of existence is arbitrary yet sweeping, contemplating every phase of the human condition. There is, evidently, light at the end of the tunnel for our artist.

The paintings in this exhibition, the core of the Santiago show, are titled “Homage” (2002), “To Love” (2001), “Transcending I” and “II” (2002), and “Transmutation I” (2001) and “III” (2002). The path is crystal-clear. When one is prepared to render homage, one is ready to love beyond the reach of the ego. At that moment, one can transcend the superficial, moving toward a more elevated vision of life.

Finally, one arrives at the state of transmutation, the subtle trick of turning substance into essence, the dream of every would-be alchemist. Sutil devotedly infuses this sequence of human spiritual evolution in profoundly moving paintings.

The viewer can follow her flow while marveling at the artist’s capacity to express such intangible experiences so deftly in powerful processions of paint, as she takes us on a stroll along these Great China Wall of colors, where each of us can relive joys and pains, triumphs and failures. Each of us can construct our own sequence on contemplating the trail of color across the stretch of canvas.

These large canvasses are built of tones that emerge from the darkness of black and blue backgrounds. Their visibly uninterrupted vertical brush strokes run the gamut of mood swings of color turned flesh. If each color radiates a frequency and its own energy, it is fundamental to understand the code that motivates Sutil. Here, red reflects vitality, blue density, and yellow the transcendental.

Suspended high above Madison Avenue in the limbo of an artist’s epiphany, Sutil provides gallery-goers with a rare opportunity to experience a manifestation of contemporary art that elevates the stakes as it satisfies the eye. As one’s rationality dissolves in the progression of colors, it is impossible to remain aloof.

These compact cardiograms of one woman’s existence, recorded in vibrant strips of color, can only stir us to measure the spectrum of our own lives, ponder on the imponderable, and approach that “shifting edge of the unknowable” from a fresher angle. Sutil offers us that possibility. It is a gift from afar, where time has other dimensions, where timelessness is an integral part of everyday fare.

Edward Shaw
Tunquén - Chile



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