Art Seen: National

VIVIAN SUTER // GLADSTONE GALLERY, 21ST STREET

By Arthur Ivan Bravo

Despite her voluntary reclusiveness, having lived and worked from a complex of ample abode and studio spaces inconspicuously located in a rural Guatemalan town since 1982, the Argentine-Swiss painter Vivian Suter has earned notable recognition, particularly in recent years. Concurrent with exhibitions of her work held at Toronto’s Power Plant, the Art Institute of Chicago, and a retrospective at Stampa Galerie in Basel, Switzerland just last year, Gladstone Gallery in New York City announced Suter under its banner, resulting in her first exhibition for the famed gallery.1

The discourses revolving around Suter’s practice have long emphasized not only the setting of Panajachel, the tropical picturesque rural lake town the artist has inhabited and labored in for the past several decades, but also how the concept of nature, or more specifically the natural environment, has informed its content and underlying themes.2 A legitimate critical examination of the artist’s practice could not be warranted, however, without taking into serious consideration the very arrangement and staging of Suter’s works. Indeed, the singular experience of a Vivian Suter exhibition arises from a mutual reciprocity between artwork and installation, effectively conjuring a curiously unique interstice of engagement wherein visitors may ‘dwell’ amongst or within.3,4 Furthermore, the artworks involved being paintings, the nature of installation characteristic to Suter’s exhibition apparently challenges traditional differentiations of media, if not at least contributing to the vast discourse on the subject. Though a matter of record, such is readily apparent in Suter’s eponymous Gladstone exhibition.

Vivian Suter, 2019. Installation view: Gladstone Gallery, New York | 21st Street, 2019.

The daughter of Swiss Jews who escaped fascism in Europe, Suter, who was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1949, studied in Switzerland, and began her practice as a multimedia artist before developing into a painter.5 Whether those initial multimedia sensibilities and tendencies continued to inform Suter’s work through settling in Panajachel, a move which followed a period of travel in the wake of a divorce and focused on painting in dialogue with nature, is anyone’s guess. The artist’s paintings display a variety of figurative and abstract content, the latter exhibiting a diversity of influences, or at the very least, awareness of various post-war movements. However, the nature of how the paintings were made readily resemble that of multimedia or sculptural artworks.

The rural and tropical are playfully depicted in Suter’s more figurative paintings—from displays of branches and twigs, to leaves and other flora, still-lives, landscapes of mountains and rivers, and animals. Meanwhile, the artist’s more abstract paintings exhibit inspiration from styles that run the ‘modernism’ gamut from abstract expressionism to tachisme, color field to informel, and more. In fact, it is difficult to fully differentiate between the figurative and abstract, as both freely contain elements of the other. The brushwork ranges from the light and minimal—resembling watercolors—to controlled, composed pastels, to thick and splotchy, generously piled-on paints; the overall application belies something of the random and carefree. Some paintings display minimal compositions and applications, others contain either landscapes or elaborate abstract compositions. It is difficult to tell what portion of the paintings may have been primed, if any. Though in many, the paints seem to have bled through.

As art objects, the paintings are curious things. Very few are hung traditionally, and instead are installed much like multimedia works—such that most are meant to be walked around or under. Many obstruct each other – in one area, a row of paintings hung low in a rack requires the viewer to circle around, peeking into most at angles; still others are laid on the ground, almost like carpets or an ongoing children’s hands-on art project. The canvases seem bedraggled and flimsy, none are stretched, and threads hang and protrude, as do the frame border areas. Apart from the varied brushwork and applications of paint, they also contain the detritus of life, whether dust accumulated, or the dirt, dried leaves, and twigs of Panajachel—presumably—as well as the artist’s hair. Many of those hanging twist and bend as if they were unkempt flags or banners: their corners curl, almost resembling vegetation when walked past, in materialized extension of their visual contents. Among other aspects, the unstretched surfaces of the paintings have an undeniably distortive effect on the contents displayed. Meanwhile, the ‘backs’ of the paintings are interesting in and of themselves. Some contain paints, or the human and natural elements are more purposefully applied during composition or accumulated and bled from the other side.

Vivian Suter, 2019. Installation view: Gladstone Gallery, New York | 21st Street, 2019.

The contents displayed, and the rendering of the paintings as objects, complement the arrangement, staging, and installation of the paintings or artworks in composing the exhibition. For the visitor, paintings are to be found everywhere within the vertically inclined cube-like gallery space, and seemingly in ever nook and cranny, so to speak.  The space may feel immersive, even crowded or overwhelming—there are paintings behind the front gallery assistant’s desk, and looking back, one as a viewer enters the gallery space, overlooking the front doors. In fact, the first painting the visitor is likely to encounter is hung so low most may have to physically duck under it, before getting their first full glimpse of most of the exhibition, which fills up the main, cube-shaped space of the gallery. Visitors are forced to move and walk about and around, look down and up, lean in and out, the way they would in a dynamic physical environment, unlike a traditional gallery space. Some visitors, individually or in groups, sit down and look about the space, taking in not only the exhibition but also the sounds and sights of others.

In responding to the installation of the exhibition, wherein paintings were rendered as art objects or multimedia works, the spaces in-between them likewise transformed, were visitors asked to participate in activating the gallery space into Suter’s Panajachel, from thousands of miles away? Perhaps this may be too much to ask, but if so, Suter comes quite close to achieving the task.


Vivian Suter at Gladstone Gallery, 21st Street, ran through June 8, 2019.

1 Gladstone Gallery. 2019. “Vivian Suter: Biography.” https://gladstonegallery.com/artist/vivian-suter/biography.
2 Thackara, Tess. 2019. “A Painter Who Left the Art World in Order to Actually Make Art.” The New York Times Style Magazine, April 17, 2019.
3 Bourriaud, Nicolas. 1998. Relational Aesthetics. les presses du reel.
4 Heidegger, M. 1971. “Building Dwelling Thinking.” In Poetry, Language, Thought, translated by Albert Hofstadter, 145-161. New York: Perennial Library.
5 Vivian Suter. “Biography.” http://viviansuter.com/en/biography/.

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