Whitehot Magazine

The New Spiritual Abstraction: Lorien Suarez-Kanerva’s Paintings by Donald Kuspit

Elan Flow 6, Acrylic, 60 x 60 in, 2019 

By DONALD KUSPIT February 26, 2024

The spiritual life, to which art belongs and in which it is one of the most powerful agents, is a complex but definite movement forward and upward…                                                                                   Wassily Kandinsky, On The Spiritual In Art And Painting in Particular, 1912(1) 

Lorien Suarez-Kanerva is a brilliant painter, with exquisite sensibility, a master of geometrical abstraction, each and every one of her paintings are aesthetic masterpieces, but more than that they restore abstraction to the spirituality it lost on the way to becoming what Clement Greenberg, the doyen of modernist abstraction, called an exploration of form—painterly and post-painterly, that is, richly gestural and flat as the canvas--for its own pure sake, today dead-ending in what the critic Walter Robinson  called “zombie formalism.”  I want to argue that Suarez-Kanerva restores spirituality to abstract painting, revitalizing it, indeed, restoring it to spiritual life, the spirituality it lost on the way to becoming an academic cliché.  There is an air of flamboyance, of extravagance to Suarez-Kanerva’s radiantly colorful, highly disciplined paintings, bespeaking their sublimity—she is entranced by what she calls “the sublime nature of geometric patterns,” suggesting she is what has been called a pattern painter.  But her geometric patterns have what Bergson called “elan vital,” the “creative principle responsible for the self-organization and spontaneous morphogenesis of things in an increasingly complex manner.”  Suarez-Kanerva’s Elan Flow 6, 2019 is a tour de force rendering of the elan vital in complex creative action.  It is a generative force, evident everywhere in nature, as Superbloom and Wildflower Fields, both 2023 show, and more broadly in the cosmos at large, as the extraordinary Wheel Within A Wheel 50, 2008, suggests.  It is an extraordinary musical painting, to allude to Kandinsky’s romantic idea of abstract painting, suggesting the music of the spheres in perpetual dervishing motion.  

Wildflower Fields, Watercolor and Gouache, 40  x 60 in, 2023  

But what makes Suarez-Kanerva’s paintings truly special—revolutionary--is that they give abstraction a radically new spiritual grounding.  Where Kandinsky’s abstraction was grounded in traditional Christianity, as his Blue Rider paintings make clear—the Blue Rider is St. George attacking the dragon of materialism that Kandinsky deplored—Suarez-Kanerva’s abstractions “illustrate” the Jesuit scientist and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin’s vitalist conception of the Omega Point, “a theorized future event in which the entirety of the universe spirals toward a final point of unification,” and the noosphere, “the sum-total of mental activity which emerges out of a complex biosphere,” involving the idea that “our planet is growing its very own mind.”(2)  Suarez-Kanerva is a new Christian painter, indeed a radical Christian painter, making radical cosmological Christian abstractions as her acknowledged debt to the radical Christian cosmologist Chardin makes clear:  where traditional Christian painters illustrated the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ Suarez-Kanerva “illustrates” the positive Omega Point—the small white circle in the upper part of Elan Flow 6 from which larger colorful circles grow on petal-like forms—and the negative Omega Point—the small black circle in the lower left corner emblematic of the biosphere.  The ovule with its projecting stamens—the female and male generative organs—of the flowers in the epic Wildflower Fields, in the foreground a tour de force of realistic naturalism, in the background a tour de force of pure abstraction—the biosphere evolving into the noosphere, suggesting the inevitable evolution of realism into abstraction, symbolizing the growth of mind out of matter, spirit out of nature.  

Wheel within a Wheel 50, Watercolor and Gouache, 62  x 45 in, 2008 

Chardin’s theory has much in common with American Transcendentalism, epitomized by Emerson’s philosophical conviction that “the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul”—a union of ostensibly irreconcilable opposites.  In picturing this doubleness, for the biosphere is Nature and the noosphere is Soul, Suarez-Kanerva emphasizes their inseparability, not to say dialectical intimacy, for each is implicated in the other, even as she gives each its aesthetic and expressive due, acknowledging the autonomy of each, asserted despite their togetherness.  Any union of opposites, whatever its tensions, is sublime.  In many of Suarez-Kanerva’s paintings biosphere and noosphere are at odds—seem incommensurate, indeed irreconcilable--however much the universe as a whole spirals toward the Omega Point that confirms its unity, and with that its transcendental character, that is, its sublimity.  Suarez-Kanerva’s paintings dramatize the sublime; Kant thought the sublime was beyond comprehension, and as such terrifying; Suarez-Kanerva shows that it is comprehensible, and inspiring.   

Wooded Terrain 1, Charcoal, Pastel and Ink on Raw Wood Panel, 40  x 40 in, 2021 

Suarez-Kanerva’s Wheel within a Wheel paintings have the same dramatic verve as her flower paintings, as Wheel Within A Wheel 130, 2023 makes clear—the section of circular flowers that informs a  geometrical circle suggests as much—but it has a transcendental autonomy of its own, for like the circle it symbolizes perfection, but its turning symbolizes the perfection of the world to come, more broadly endless cycles of life and death.  The only work dealing with death in the group of ten works is Wooded Terrain I, 2021, a powerful close-up of the black surface of seemingly dead trees, as confrontational as her living abstractions, with a kind of X-ray of the interior lineaments, the sap no longer flowing in them.  The blackness of the charcoal that informs the work suggests that Suarez-Kanerva may regard black as another color, as Matisse did, but her suave handling of it gives it a sinister edge.  However bleak and grim the outlook implicit in the work—it is certainly pessimistic compared to the Chardin-inspired works, with their air of eternal freshness--it is exquisitely crafted.  Clearly Suarez-Kanerva is a great painter, all the more so because of the profound philosophical meaning and spiritual drama her symbolic paintings enact.  WM

Wheel within a Wheel 130, Acrylic, Watercolor, Gouache, Brass Shavings, glass bead medium, collaged inkjet archival prints and solar plate monoprints on canvas, 60 x 60 inches, 2023


(1)Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo, eds., Kandinsky:  Complete Writings on Art (New York:  Da Capo Press, 1994), 131

(2)Chardin’s cosmology is grounded in evolutionary theory and process philosophy, famously elaborated in Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality, 1929, with its so-called process theology.   Chardin’s The Divine Milieu, 1957 has much in common with Whitehead’s discussion of God in Process and Reality.  For both God is a temporal process climaxing in permanence.  Both were on the creative cusp of philosophical thinking, just as Suarez-Kanerva is on the creative cusp of artistic thinking, as her remarkable, not to say unique synthesis of geometric abstraction and romantic naturalism makes clear.  It is worth noting that she quotes Chardin extensively in her writing.  She has been misunderstood as a mystic, but like Kandinsky she is a philosopher.    

Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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