Sometimes an artist’s story adds lustre to their work, and this is the case with the 70-year-old painter Vivian Suter, who was born in Argentina and educated in Switzerland, but in 1982 moved to Guatemala, where she still lives.
Suter has a studio in the jungle beside the volcanic lake Atitlan. Every day, she produces a new abstract painting incorporating elements of the landscape that surrounds and inspires her. When she’s done, she hangs the work outside, allowing sunlight, rainwater and the wind to determine their final appearance. Occasionally, she even buries them, so that they soak up the jungle’s mulch.
Last month, a kaleidoscopic installation of her colourful paintings – which she presents un-stretched and hanging, so that they resemble flags or banners – opened at Tate Liverpool. Now, Camden Arts Centre has shipped a further 250 of her canvases to London, for Suter’s first show in the capital.
In the garden by the café, a bunch of them hangs in a cheerfully rough-and-ready temporary structure built to evoke Suter’s open-air wooden studio. I feel for them, forced to swap their wild natural habitat for this spot overlooking the traffic-choked Finchley Road. Upstairs, her canvases fare better, in a pair of large galleries where they create one dramatic installation full of shifting colours.
There are paintings on the walls, stacked on the floor, hanging from the ceiling as well as makeshift racks, and suspended in front of other paintings, so that a clear view of them is obscured. (There is no “correct” way to show Suter’s work.)
The deliberately informal effect, meant to conjure the profusion of the rainforest, is like being inside a bazaar. If, at first, you don’t find a design you like, it’s worth rummaging, because a more pleasing composition – probably featuring a circle, wave, or vegetal form – is sure to turn up.
Suter’s yellows, pinks, and oranges may once have started out hot and bright, but, mostly, they now have a muted, washed-out quality from having been left in the rain. Unfortunately, her more weathered compositions tend, individually, not to quicken the pulse.
That said, it’s fun spotting traces of the jungle: streaks and splashes of mud here, encrusted leaves and volcanic matter there. There are also paw prints left behind by her dog Tintin, who used to nap on one of the paintings (hence the exhibition’s title).
At every turn, too, there are shades of modern artists. One canvas, for instance, put me in mind of a messy, mottled Ellsworth Kelly. But Suter – the latest older woman to be championed by the gatekeepers of contemporary art – always sublimates her sources.
The overall effect, then – for here, surely, is a case of the whole being more than the sum of its parts – is transporting and rewarding, if a touch soft-focus, and with a slightly retro vibe. For a long time, this sort of thing has been resolutely unfashionable. How nice that it’s back in vogue.
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