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Tintin in the forests of Guatemala

Artist Vivian Souter at the Camden Arts Centre, London

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The rainforests of Central America have come to north London.

One day Tintin decided he would like to sit on one of my freshly made works – so it became Tintin’s sofa

To walk through the huge, vividly coloured canvases hanging from the walls and ceiling of the Camden Arts Centre is to be uncannily immersed in the heat and humidity of the Guatemalan highlands, where Argentinian artist Vivian Suter has made her home for the past 30 years.

Oil, volcanic material, earth, botanical matter, and microorganisms on canvas Seventeen canvases

Born in Buenos Aires, and spending her youth in Basel Switzerland, as a young woman she travelled first to the United States and then headed south, settling in Panajachel above Lake Atitlan in the early 1980s.

She has been making art there ever since, responding in bold primary colours to the sights and sounds around her, what she calls the ‘immense cacophony of the rainforest,’ with its luxuriant vegetation, animals and bird life.

Energy of Nature

The hundreds of canvases in the exhibition show an astonishing variety of abstract shapes and colours, none of them alike, but which together build up to create a sense of the bursting energy of nature around her home.

As the exhibition catalogue puts it: “one canvas reveals the next, creating an ethereal record of the passage of time and forming a permeable membrane between nature and civilisation.”

“I try to absorb this energy,” she says, “and show it through abstraction. It’s not so much what I see, but what I feel, what I take in from my surroundings.”

She contrasts this vibrant life with the more muted light and colours of Switzerland, where she spent her teenage years, and thinks that somehow it was the bright skies and open spaces of her native Argentina that returned to the surface when she arrived in Guatemala, where she says “I immediately fell in love with the place and the people.” She soon found and bought an old coffee plantation- and is proud that it still produces a few bags of beans a year.

Storms and Art

Suter uses huge unprimed canvases on which she paints with bold sweeping gestures in a mixture of DIY paint, oil and acrylic, pigments and fish glue as a fixer.

Vivian Suter

At the same time, there is a sense in her paintings that the natural energy she tries to capture can be so powerful it is harsh and destructive.

Suter recalls how in the floods of 2005 that caused more than 1500 deaths in the Guatemalan highlands, rainwater poured through her studio, ruining many of her paintings stacked on the floor.

Since then, she has tried to incorporate this outside world into her work quite literally, leaving the canvases outside in the forest to allow the unpredictable elements to add to her creations: raindrops, splashes of mud, twigs and other accidental additions that complement her work.

Tintin’s Sofa

Similarly, she explains where the strange title of her show: Tintin’s Sofa’ comes from. “I have three dogs Bonzo, Nina, and Tintin. They love to participate, and one day Tintin decided he would like to sit on one of my freshly made works – so it became Tintin’s sofa.”

This title suggests another element in Suter’s work: humour and a playfulness that allows chance and the fleeting moment to influence the outcome of the paintings. As she says: “I document the moment, discovering things that make me feel good, and hope that these things come through in my paintings. I want to show the fun I had making them.” Vivian Suter’s exhibition Tintin’s Sofa is at the Camden Arts Centre London until 5 April 2020. Her commission for Art on the Underground will open at Stratford Station in the summer of 2020, followed by a retrospective exhibition at Reina Sofia Madrid in the winter of 2020.


All images courtesy of Camden Arts Centre

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