While the Jewish Museum’s Florine Stettheimer show is already one of this summer’s crowd-pleasers, the much smaller, and rather paradoxical, installation in the imposing museum’s Skirball Lobby should not be missed.
At first sight, Vivian Suter’s fascinating work looks a little out of place in a faux-Renaissance mansion. Since 1983 the artist has lived and worked on a former coffee plantation in the small town of Panajachel, located in the volcanic Guatemalan uplands. She does much of her work outdoors, and although her paintings might spend some time in the shed-like structures that serve as her studios, they are just as likely to be left out in the elements. Overhanging mango and avocado trees, rain, mud, and even wandering animals leave their traces on the canvases, and Suter adds paint marks to interact with them.
The artist has adopted an equally unusual attitude toward the way her work is exhibited. Although, in some circumstances, she is quite happy to show stretched canvases hung on the wall, she is also likely to suspend them unstretched on racks or from the ceiling so that they obscure one another. This is what she has done here. Of the seven canvases on display, only two can be seen in their entirety, and, in fact, the two most densely worked paintings, which are also the most interesting, are almost entirely hidden by other canvases. Those that are visible feature flat patches of color, stripes, passages of loose paint-handling, and large areas of blank canvas.
Although Suter’s website tells us the paintings are “about the wind, the rain, the volcanoes, and the vastness and clarity of the tropical landscape,” they are clearly not representations of these things. In fact, rather than regarding these canvases as artworks at all (they are not titled or dated), it appears that Suter sees them as physical responses to the circumstances in which they are made. She has said that she considers them “abstract and imaginative.”
Suter talks of the freedom that working in the rural tropics allows her, and that includes freedom from the pressures of the art world. She was the subject of a retrospective at the Kunsthalle in Basel in 2014. Now, with this first museum show in this country, dealer representation in Mexico City and Los Angeles, and inclusion in this year’s Documenta, she will be relinquishing much of that freedom. We’ll see what effect it has on the evolution of her work.