The Untamed Jungles of Vivian Suter’s Abstract Paintings

Wherever Vivian Suter goes, she takes the Guatemalan jungle with her. Last year, the 70-year-old artist filled New York’s Gladstone Gallery and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, with her vibrant abstract canvases, suspended unframed from the walls and ceilings, strung from racks, and laid in piles on the floor. Now she has come to London’s Camden Arts Centre, where 200 canvases fill two galleries and part of the garden, for the exhibition Tintin’s Sofa, in the artist’s trademark immersive mise-en-scène.
Though she was born in Argentina and raised in Switzerland, Suter has been living in Panajachel, Guatemala, next to the volcanic lake Atitlán, for almost 40 years. After some success in the European art world in the early 1980s, she went into self-imposed exile in Central America and quickly fell in love with the beauty of the Guatemalan landscape, and with an American academic living in Guatemala. When their marriage ended, she built herself a house and studio that she shared with her artist mother, Elisabeth Wild (who, sadly, recently passedaway).
Suter’s house and studio are both at the mercy of the natural world: a strangler fig tree is currently threatening to uproot her bedroom floor, and a couple of tropical storms have flooded her studio. The first flood, in 2005, devastated Suter, who was convinced that the muddy rainwater had destroyed her paintings. But once the canvases dried out she realized that these encroachments from nature in fact enhanced the works. Though she had previously painted outside, she began to embrace an al fresco method more fully.
Suter’s paintings bear many traces of the environment in which they were made. In addition to the water marks, they are embedded with leaves, sticks, mud, and paw prints. The exhibition’s title — Tintin’s Sofa — is a reference to her dog’s penchant for sitting on top of the canvases. Another of her installations, currently on display at Tate Liverpool, is subtitled Vivian’s Bed. This approach to art — acknowledging it as something in and of the world — is what makes her painterly vision so enchanting and, maybe paradoxically, so otherworldly.
Suter’s individual works, rendered in a bold and vivid palette, are idiosyncratic fits in the tradition of 20th- and 21st-century abstraction. In one there’s a glimmer of Rothko or Clyfford Still, in another a splash of Oscar Murillo. Some of the canvases seem to hint at figuration — evoking a mountain or a cat, for instance — but it’s rarely ever more than a suggestion.
Vivian Suter: Tintin’s Sofa continues at Camden Arts Centre (Arkwright Rd, London, UK) through April 5.

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