Learning From Nature
It’s hard to separate Vivian Suter from the landscape in which her paintings are made. Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina and raised in Basel, Switzerland, for more than 30 years she has lived and worked in the rural village of Panajachel in Guatemala’s southwestern highlands. This small and relatively untouched community sits on the edge of Lake Atitlán, an enormous volcanic crater surrounded by steep flourishing hills and traditional Mayan villages. A four-hour drive from Guatemala City, leaving the city to take the Pan-American Highway is a chaotic experience, passing continuous rows of houses and shop fronts flanked by security guards, many holding machine guns. The final leg of the journey takes a specially precipitous road that opens up into the mouth of the village, a clamour of tuk-tuk drivers, tourist shops and street-food stalls leading to a small public dock. The dock is the main gateway to the villages that surround the Lake, from here it’s a taxi-boat ride into a landscape thick with vibrant vegetation and wildlife that couldn’t feel further from the hustle of the capital.
When I visited Vivian at her home here, in May 2018, the air was crisp after the rain, the lake silent and still, its surface filled with huge glimmering insects drowned in the storm the night before. This is a place where downpours and gales haunt the landscape and the weather can switch in a moment from burning sun to treacherous mudslides. Following two huge storms in 2005 and 2010 — during which Vivian’s studio and
hundreds of works were destroyed, submerged in mud — ecological precarity has come to play an integral role in her practice.
Vivian paints outside in her garden where she says she can be free to embrace the full immensity of her environment, working with, not against, the uncontrollable forces of nature. Surrounded by her three dogs, Tintin, Bonzo and Nina, she works from a small shed-come-studio precariously positioned atop a steep path. Mixing fish glue, DIY paints, pigments, oil and acrylic, she works onto un-primed canvas in thick bold brush strokes. The edges of her paintings are left raw, marked with occasional remnants of masking and packing tape that have become a part of the work now.
Predominantly abstract shapes are met with strong and sometimes violent blocks of black. At times the canvases recall more formal pictorial landscape painting, but always adopting a quality of immediacy and freedom in direct response to her environment. The paintings are then left to embrace the earth and the rainwater, resting face-up in her garden, waiting to capture what the elements, or the animals, bring. This process is intuitive — sometimes works can stay outside for months in her garden, sometimes they are forgotten about altogether. Once weathered, and when she feels it’s time, they are carried to another studio where she has constructed a simple hanging system as a method to store and protect the paintings. This has since become a favoured model for displaying her works in museums and galleries around the world.
In the studio, unstretched canvases hang like a canopy, suspended from the ceiling where they move in the breeze, overlapping and intersecting the space so that you can walk between and around them, or gaze up at them from below. Suter doesn’t like to title her paintings; she thinks of them as one body of work and says she’d forget anyway if she tried to name them all, prolific as she is in her output. She says she wants her feelings to come through in the work so that the body and not merely the mind can intuit what she sees and feels. These works will travel all over the world, most recently to Basel, Boston, Chicago, Liverpool, Miami, New York and London. When she installs them she responds very directly to the space, bringing with her a quiet focus and a little bit of the Guatemalan rainforest, creating temple-like spaces for contemplation and reflection.
Vivian is softly-spoken, introverted, and her home and garden are an intimate shelter from the hustle of the artworld she very deliberately exited 30 years ago. The psychoanalyst and artist Carl Jung thought that the introverted, intuitive person acts on sheer intensity of perception. For him, these ‘types’ were likely mystics or prophets, grappling with a tension between protecting their visions from influence by others, while simultaneously attempting to make their ideas comprehensible and persuasive — a necessity for those visions to bear real fruit. I like to think of Vivian this way, turning to the vitality of her adopted landscape enables her the air and space to make this work, against the odds. In my consumer society, where such value is placed on owning things, it’s easy to believe that social life is not about living but having. By embracing the land in all its violent and earthly forces Suter reminds us that there is an innate desire for exploration, connection and intimacy beyond mere having, that connects us not just with each other but the world around us.
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‘She could see ahead of her, way at the road’s end, the volcano named Fire. She crossed herself and bit her lips. She had come walking with the intention of dreaming of her lover, but the thought of this volcano which had erupted many centuries ago chased all dreams of love from her mind. She saw in her mind the walls of the houses caving in, and the roofs falling on the heads of the babies ... and the mothers, their skirts covered with mud, running through the streets in despair [...] She looked again at the volcano ahead of her, and although nothing had changed, to her it seemed that a cloud had passed across the face of the sun’ ‘A Guatemalan Idyll’, Jane Bowles (1944)
Vivian Suter (b. 1949) has been featured in solo and group exhibitions around the world, including: Vivian Suter: Nisyros (Vivian’s Bed), Tate Liverpool (2019); Vivian Suter: el bosque interior, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago (2018–19); La Canícula, The Power Plant, Toronto (2018); Lala Mountain — Panajachel, 11th Taipei Biennial (2018); documenta 14, Kassel and Athens (2017); The Wind, The Rain, The Volcanoes, The Jewish Museum, New York (2017); Lejos, House of Gaga, Mexico City (2015); Intrépida, Featuring Elisabeth Wild Fantasías, Kunsthalle Basel (2014); and Bienal de São Paulo (2014).
Kiera Blakey is Curator at Art on the Underground, London.
Supported by Pro Helvetia and the Vivian Suter Exhibition Circle. With thanks to Gladstone Gallery, New York; Sheldon Inwentash and Lynn Factor, Toronto; Tuplin Fine Art, London; and all those who wish to wish to remain anonymous.