My first encounter with Vivian Suter was surreptitious: her name showed up on a documenta 14 travel email, and since I knew none of the participants and was curious about who some others might be, I put her name into a search engine. Instantly my screen was flooded with photos of her paintings, wild and alive, swathes of color on unstretched canvases, some layered one on top of the other, some unfurling from the wall like scrolls. Conceived in Panajachel, Guatemala, where Suter has lived for more than thirty years, surrounded by palms and an abundance of other plant life, her works will later inhabit art spaces in ways that invoke the origins of their making.
Painting is work, and perhaps doubly so in a hot climate, but Vivian has found a way to be fluid within the vicissitudes of terrain and weather. Many of the photos of her work show the paintings in process, some in an airy studio, others outdoors or on a porch; vegetation encroaches and frames nearly all the canvases. Some paintings exhibit traces of hurricanes and floods and are more beautiful for it. For she befriends deluge and mud; she invites time to act on her canvases in the manner of acid biting an etched plate. Implicit in the work is a politics of insistent experimentation and an embrace of ruin.
Born in Buenos Aires to exiled European parents four years after the end of World War II, Suter returned to Basel when she was thirteen, and it is to this city and its art scene that she stays connected. Nevertheless, it was on a trip through North and Central America in 1983 that she found love and so set down roots on the banks of Lake Atitlán. Since 2007 she has lived and worked there alongside her mother, artist Elisabeth Wild.
I first met Vivian in a hotel lobby in Athens and felt an immediate affinity with her. She imparts a low-key gentleness and equanimity, and the quiet urgency of having lived a great deal. We got to know each other over the next four days of meals and visits to archeological sites and empty storefronts. Here Vivian shifted gears: she became very intent on choosing a place to stage her work, and it’s obvious why. Her paintings boldly occupy space, bisect it, interrupt and dialogue with it in a way that is pivotal, sculptural, an animated invitation to the body and the senses.