Paintings, everywhere. Suspended from the ceiling, hanging on the walls, overlapping, spilling over into the corridor, pooling on the floor. Some are painted on both sides, others have their fronts turned against the walls. The dramatic arrangement of works suggests the organic and vegetal profusion of a complex living system such as a rainforest. This is a deliberate echo of the rainforests which surround Vivian Suter’s lakeside studio in Guatemala – a place that plays a fundamental role in the making and meaning of the artist’s work, and which leaves its physical traces on her paintings.
In 2005, Guatemala was hit by a serious hurricane and Suter’s studio was flooded, apparently ruining the many works she had stored there. Sorting through her storm-damaged canvases, however, she began to realise that rather than being destroyed, the works had rather been changed by the natural event – often for the better. This set Suter on a new course in which she wanted the environment to play an active role in her work.
Now, Suter’s confident, colourful paintings bear many marks of their ongoing making. She generally works outside, and often leaves ‘finished’ works out for days or even weeks at a time, where they acquire flecks of mud, dead leaves, insects, rain spots, or even paw prints from her three dogs, Tintin, Bonzo and Nina (the show’s title, Tintin’s Sofa, is an allusion to her pets’ use of her paintings as furniture). Through this process, the environment becomes an active participant in the creation of the artwork, while the painting itself becomes an archive of information about the environment of which it is an integral part. Moreover, these paintings continue to change even when they have left the context of the studio. Suter emphasises this in her exhibition at Camden Arts Centre by placing some works outside, where the wet, wintery North London garden – a far cry from the Guatemalan rainforest in which they were begun – will add its own marks.
Inside, among the space’s formal architecture, some paintings hang in close rank and file like fabric samples or old maps in an archive, waiting for a researcher to pluck out the most promising. Of course, visitors are not allowed to touch the pieces on show at Camden Arts Centre, and as a result many of the paintings are only revealed through side-long glances and unexpected angles, or spotted through a gap between two other canvases. They therefore rely on the viewer navigating a course through the space and becoming an active participant themselves.
Then again, the transplantation of these deeply ecological works from their original context evokes both the fetishization of ‘exotic’ or ‘wild’ locations by Western consumers, and the extreme precarity in which many South American rainforests exist. With the recent news of fires burning through vast swathes of the continent (of which we are reminded again by the horrific Australian bush fires), the pressures of growing agricultural demands, the lessening of protections for indigenous peoples and ecosystems by right-wing governments, and the ever-mounting stresses of climate breakdown cannot be overemphasised. Suter’s dynamic paintings effectively suggest new preoccupations for environmentally implicated artistic making.