Voices of silence

Kate Linker

Subtle hues, nacreous surfaces and complex textures of pigment and light are only superficial allures of Francisca Sutil’s work. In these paintings, entitled Voices of silence, the landscape imagery of her early work has been internalized and transformed: the mountain lakes and wide, parched plains have become inner landscapes, emblems of the world as experienced by the human subject. Moreover, precise details have been left behind and transcended by large, ‘abstract’ thoughts, as Sutil takes her own condition for her subject. Between the two approaches of direct description and oblique evocation, Sutil has chosen the latter, more difficult mode.

Sutil is a masterful illusionist, in the original sense of the word, which derives from the Latin il-ludere, ‘to play against’. The artist plays against the obdurate flatness and limited dimensions of her painting surface to suggest a many-dimensioned experience. Thus, the scale of these works, most of which are composed of two panels, easily invites the address of the viewer, approximating the viewer’s outstretched arms. Their proportions suggest nothing so much as a mirror –the illusionist’s pre-eminent tool– whose mirages of deep space are conjured from a flat plane. Moreover, in a manner unusual to recent American art, Sutil’s paintings do not assert the material support, but rather, deny it, using the flat picture base as a basis for a manifold array of emotions. The multiple levels of color that Sutil lays down in repeated layers of pigmented gesso result in spaces that are at once deep and ambiguous. They invite the eye’s penetration and, with it, the mind’s investigation: within each work are shards of vermillion, green or charcoal black that inflect the viewer’s experience, separating out from the churning vortices of color. These practices stem from Sutil’s attempts to address both the broad scope, and human scale, of her emotions. In the longstanding battle between materialist and spiritualist camps that has marked this century’s aesthetics, Sutil aligns herself with the ranks of the ‘spirit’.

Sutil is an artist of broad painting culture, and her works emit echoes of statements by early modernist painters. There are intimations, here, of Kandinsky’s desire to find “abstract equivalents” for his emotions, but it is Matisse’s comments that are most audible. In numerous remarks Matisse referred to his paintings as expressing “a state of the soul”, as “a crystalline milieu for the spirit”, and as the “doubling of the life of the mind”. A sense of the artwork as a plastic analogue to the world, as reflected through the mind of the artist, informs these statements, belying their debt to Symbolist theory: to make so many mental mirrors, using the canvas as a reflecting surface, became the definition of the modern pictorial endeavor. Furthermore, the luminous plane of the mirror provided an image of the illusioned paradox of the painted surface, at once (materially) flat and (optically) deep.

The Voices of silence bear testimony to the impressions that collect in open, empty places –for example, in the swelling atmosphere over the Ganges River at sunrise, as glimpsed on a trip to India, or in the parched vastness of the Atacama Desert of Sutil’s native Chile. Such solemnal and inescapably solitary experiences require abstract registers, ones that evade the pristine niceties of exact description. Once again, Matisse: “Color helps to express light, not he physical phenomenon, but the only light that really exists, that in the artist’s brain”. This ‘spiritual’ illumination, expressed through the interaction of color-light, has its own history (we find it, closer to us, in the glimmering penumbras of Mark Rothko); in Sutil’s art, it develops through her cultivation of the in-betweens of hues, as the action of color against color reveals the light implicit in their interplay. The shallow effulgence of this wholely abstract color-light opens up the range within the delimited boundaries of given hues: thus, in Voices of silence Nº 9, red unfolds into a multiplicity of colors –crimson, garnet, ruby, carnelian– with bits of magenta and amethyst flickering through, in consort with cadmium orange. In Voices of silence Nº 17, the dominant tone is yellow, but the range is wide –citron, sulfur, primrose, saffron, amber. No color is pure or unmediated: sea-foam green cuts through the iridescent whole, along with specks of umber and black.

In her attempt to mirror the depth of her emotion, Sutil turns to uncharacteristic means. Flat knives are used to lay down layers of gesso, which are sanded between applications and surmounted by sand, graphite or other porous materials. The knives’ motion leaves a record in equivocal marks that emit both corporeal and earthly analogies, suggesting bodily scars and scorched land. The pigment strata obscure the canvas, masking the wood panel underneath, but, more importantly, their textual variations reveal the myriad surfaces within the whole. A parallel is established here between pictorial texture and the texture of Sutil’s emotions, as the irregularities of pigment evoke swirls and eddies of feeling, qualified by residues of other colors and, hence, by experiences latent within the painting. Each panel of the diptychs is disparate, possessing a different tonality and grain. In Voices of silence Nº 14, the left side emits tremulous light through its quivering penumbras of hues that move from yellow to celadon green along the shallow relief of a striped fabric that Sutil has substituted for canvas. In contrast, the right side seethes with turbulent color; dense and agitated accumulations of pigment suggest the sensuous analogues of earthquakes, volcanoes and solar explosions. The interaction of these elements, both among themselves and across the seam dividing the panels, maintains their differences in a complex web. As with the paradox of the ‘speaking silence’, the oppositions coexist in tense equilibrium.

Sutil is a reader of mystical philosophy, and the imbrication of opposites in these diptychs reminds us of the metaphysical sense of a spirit expressed in, and through, the unity of contraries. This spirit is not an otherworldly phenomenon; rather, it manifests itself in certain configurations of atmosphere and etiolated light when the oneness of the universe becomes palpable, leaving behind the confused play of isolated elements, that constitutes the world of appearances. This coexistence of contraries also summons up the heritage of Romantic idealism (itself partly dependent on mystical thought) that informs modernist aesthetics. Coleridge, for example, wrote of the poem as embodying the “reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities”, remarking on their fusion as yielding “a tone and spirit of unity”. Nearer in time, Baudelaire described the “intimate immensity” of the spaces known to the soul, and conferred on the imagination the role of mirroring their apprehension in art. It is the indelible rhythm of such immaterial but nonetheless ‘real’ spaces that find a resonant echo in these paintings.


Francisca Sutil: Voices of Silence
Nohra Haime Gallery, New York
July, 1992





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