Francisca Sutil, “Mute II #9” (2015), oil on canvas, 74.02 x 51.97 inches, photo Tomas Rodriguez Works (courtesy of the artist and Nohra Haime Gallery)

I first met Francisca Sutil in early 1982, shortly after she graduated from Pratt Institute with an MFA in papermaking. A few years later, in 1985, I reviewed her first solo show in New York with Nohra Haime, with whom she continues to exhibit her work, which means I have been following her art for more than half my life.

Over the past 35-plus years, Sutil’s work has undergone a number of changes while remaining committed to modernist abstraction. For much of that time she was a chromatic abstractionist exploring the relationship between paint’s materiality and light. She was always alert to the surface she worked on, from wood panels to linen, as well as to the paint’s viscosity. In 1999-2000, she worked on chromatic paintings for the interior of a contemporary chapel. Over the years, her titles suggest that she has more than a passing knowledge of Buddhism, Hinduism, and the writings of various European mystical philosophers. I think knowing this about her earlier work helps us understand what she has been up to for nearly a decade.

In her 2013 exhibition, Mute, at Nohra Haime (October 1 – November 16), which I reviewed:

[Sutil made] a major break with her earlier, chromatic work in which mark making was effaced. In the prints, paintings, watercolors and gouaches included in her current show, Sutil strips away everything she does — all the technical processes she developed and mastered — until she is left with one simple, repetitive act that requires intense concentration and a precision that allows for change and accident.

Francisca Sutil, “Mute II #3” (2014), ink on paper, 86.61 x 49.61 inches, photo Tomas Rodriguez Works (courtesy of the artist and Nohra Haime Gallery)

That act was to touch a loaded brush to a vertical sheet of paper or canvas, making a row of imprints resembling a teardrop or raindrop, one after another, row after row, until the surface was filled. The rows were not uniformly perfect, as the forms sometimes tilted to the left or right, affecting the placement of the teardrop next to it. When she worked on a white surface, she used black paint or ink. For a black surface, she used a white medium.

I don’t think it was purely coincidental that Sutil began working this way in 2009-2010. Born in Chile in 1952, she began studying in America in 1972, the year before General Augusto Pinochet, the leader of a military junta, overthrew the duly elected socialist government of President Salvador Allende with tacit approval by the American government. She returned to Chile in 1992, four years after a national referendum forced Pinochet out of office and two years after democracy was reestablished. In 2010, Chile suffered a devastating earthquake.

Now, nearly ten years later, Sutil continues to work with this mark, as evidenced in her exhibition, Francisca Sutil: Mute II, at Nohra Haime (April 25–May 26, 2018). While I’ve suggested a biographical link between these works and specific events in the recent history of Chile, it is important to point out that Sutil thinks of the work as a kind of “uncoded message,” which is in keeping with her luminous early explorations of color and light. It can be both, of course, which is one of the abiding strengths of these works: they resist being read even as they evoke language and signs.

According to the gallery press release, the “point of departure in this series is a basic hand-eye coordination exercise from childhood called palotes.” As in the work she made prior to this series, Sutil finds ways to be elemental in her approach. In the Mute series, she begins each piece in the upper left-hand corner and works her way to the other side, moving down the surface row by row. There is no revision or altering of the mark, which is the controlled residue of her concentration, the placing and pressing of the brush against the surface.

Francisca Sutil, “Mute” (2009), watercolor on paper, 15.5 x 12 inches

In the current exhibition, Sutil has enlarged the scale of her works on paper, and she has started working on canvas. The effects are mesmerizing, again linking these works to her earlier paintings. The elliptical teardrop shapes can be solid or translucent. The wavering rows evoke gravity, suspension, contingency, counting, and the shaping of time. Each imprint is unique, even though it resembles all the others. The difference is noticeable without being emphatic. In the watercolor, “Mute” (2009), the shape is darker at the top, where Sutil first pressed the loaded brush against the paper, and it gets lighter once the brush is moved, evoking feathers falling or rising.

The imprint of the loaded brush recalls Sutil’s concept of the “uncoded message.” It is as if the artist has pressed the brush against the paper but has decided not to draw anything: she is mute before all the possibilities of what can be done next. At the same time, the rows of imprints evoke ritual, both in the making and in the looking. They evoke the act of counting, while the tear-like shapes invite a metaphorical reading. This is why I think Sutil’s insistence on the work being an “uncoded message” is important: it opens up a space of looking that is not tied to any particular narrative.

Looking at the large works on paper, which are more than seven feet tall by around four feet wide, I was captivated by the internal rhythms of the marks, the way they make the two-dimensional surface undulate. All sorts associations surface, from chain mail to snakeskin to rosaries to anonymous weavings done on a loom. When Sutil changes the color of the imprint from black to reddish brown, or when the black turns lighter as she moves across the surface, I get the feeling that the artist is working in a trance-like state.

Francisca Sutil, “Mute II #10” (2015), oil on linen, 66.14 x 72.05 inches, photo Tomas Rodriguez Works (courtesy of the artist and Nohra Haime Gallery)

Sutil’s big move in this show is to apply this mark-making method to paintings. One canvas, dating from 2013, is square, underscoring Sutil’s long commitment to abstraction. Done on a gray-blue ground, the marks are either white or yellow; packed closely together, they seem ready to dissipate. The undulation suggests that a wind is blowing through the marks, or that a tremor is rippling the ground. At the same time, the repetition of the marks conveys persistence and joy in the act of making them.

In “Mute II #10” (2015), the myriad rows are rhythmically lush and hypnotic. The changes in color add another rhythm into the painting. The semi-transparent marks underscore Sutil’s pursuit of the changing relationship between color and light, and the subtleties that can be achieved within it. This is what I find powerful in these works. They can be understood against the background of Chile’s history, both historical events and natural disasters, but they can also be loosened from these proceedings and seen in another way, as a kind of counterpoint. What they register is not a personal response to public history. Rather, they reveal the smallest changes in light and dark as the marks move between transparency and solidity: they acknowledge, embrace, and celebrate the inescapable passing of time. In this regard, Sutil’s works become a material manifestation of a meditation on time, an uncoded pulsating message delivered to the viewer.

Francisca Sutil: Mute II continues at Nohra Haime Gallery (500 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 26.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...