Altoon Sultan

Altoon Sultan: “Some Recent Work”

March 29 – June 8, 2014

Press Release | Images | Essay | Résumé

PRESS RELEASE

Some Walls is pleased to present Altoon Sultan: Some Recent Work, March 29 – June 8, 2014.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, and now based in Vermont, Sultan possesses a long resume outlining success as a realist painter before turning to current work spanning the continuum between representation and abstraction. Over the last several years she has increased the degree of abstraction and reductive composition in her paintings, and pursued various avenues of non-representational imagery. This exhibition includes five egg tempera paintings on parchment over panel, five hooked wool drawings made with hand-dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, several potato and cardboard prints, and two parchment boxes containing multiple, near-miniature abstract paintings.

While often small in scale, Sultan’s work is visually refined, includes a variety of imagery, approaches, and materials, and is the result of highly skilled execution and resolution. It should go without saying that any artist should simply make the work that she or he wants—as Thoreau wrote in Walden, “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth”—but in a competitive art world that isn’t always the case. Pursuing a number of unique directions, as Sultan does, and as simple as it sounds, requires patience, curiosity, integrity, and perhaps a thick skin.

Many of these characteristics, as any artist with serious career ambitions will attest, can make finding gallery support, exhibition opportunities, and collector interest quite difficult. Other strikes against an artist may include residing and working in a rural area, being a woman, and having lived beyond a certain age. As we know, this is nonsense, yet a nonsense too often practiced.

Sultan’s pursuit of her "truth" is singular; the various branches of her corpus grow from a seasoned core. In visual art, words only go so far. For Sultan’s art, its entirety a trunk with many strong limbs, close viewing of affiliate arms and sprouts evidences a focused and intelligent vision that is open, intelligent, associative, hard working, generous, and disciplined. Modeled for us throughout Sultan’s work is a grounded, planted, healthy way to be in and engage with the world, but it’s important to know and experience that the seeds of this example are found in the individual art works she makes. As do saplings grow into trees bearing blossoms and fruit, the artist’s body of work necessarily and wholly comprises its many separate parts.

This is a rare opportunity to see Altoon Sultan’s work in the San Francisco Bay Area; to be fully appreciated, it must be seen in person.

Altoon Sultan has held many solo shows in New York at Marlborough and at Tibor de Nagy and throughout the United States over more than 30 years. Her work has been included in numerous group shows, including many at museums such as the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Philbrook Museum of Art, the Hood Museum, the Fleming Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Art, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Awards include two National Endowment for the Arts grants, an Academy Award in Art from the American Academy, and a medal for painting from the National Academy of Design, where she was elected a member in 1995. Her work is in many museum collections, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York: the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; the Yale University Art Gallery; the Library of Congress; and the Fleming Museum of the University of Vermont.

See images, a full length essay, and more information at Some Walls.

To schedule a visit, or for more information, please contact Chris Ashley at info@somewalls.com.

Some Walls is a curatorial and writing art project founded in 2009 in a private home in Oakland, California. Some Walls is open by appointment only. View the exhibition online at somewalls.com.

Previous exhibitions at Some Walls:

 

ESSAY

Altoon Sultan: Some Recent Work

"It’s all one song." ~ Neil Young, November 11, 1996, Meadows Music Theater, Hartford, Connecticut

Born and raised in Brooklyn, and now based in Vermont, Sultan possesses a long resume outlining success as a realist painter before turning to current work spanning the continuum between representation and abstraction. Over the last several years she has increased the degree of abstraction and reductive composition in her paintings, and pursued various avenues of non-representational imagery. This exhibition includes five egg tempera paintings on parchment over panel, five hooked wool drawings made with hand-dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, several potato and cardboard prints, and two parchment boxes containing multiple, near-miniature abstract paintings.

“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth” ~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden

While often small in scale, Sultan’s work is visually refined, includes a variety of imagery, approaches, and materials, and is the result of highly skilled execution and resolution. It should go without saying that any artist should simply make the work that she or he wants, but in a competitive art world that isn’t always the case. Pursuing a number of unique directions, as Sultan does, and as simple as it sounds, requires patience, curiosity, integrity, and perhaps a thick skin.

“In all labour there is profit: but the talk of the lips tendeth only to penury.” ~ Proverbs 14:23, King James Version.

Many of these characteristics, as any artist with serious career ambitions will attest, can make finding gallery support, exhibition opportunities, and collector interest quite difficult. Other strikes against an artist may include residing and working in a rural area, being a woman, and having lived beyond a certain age. As we know, this is nonsense, yet a nonsense too often practiced.

“Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water. After enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water.” ~ attributed to Jianzhi Sengcan from the poem Xinxin Ming

Sultan’s pursuit of her "truth" is singular; the various branches of her corpus grow from a seasoned core. In visual art, words only go so far. For Sultan’s art, its entirety a trunk with many strong limbs, close viewing of affiliate arms and sprouts evidences a focused and intelligent vision that is open, associative, hard working, generous, and disciplined. Modeled for us throughout Sultan’s work is a grounded, planted, healthy way to be in and engage with the world, but it’s important to know and experience that the seeds of this example are found in the individual art works she makes. As do saplings grow into trees bearing blossoms and fruit, the artist’s body of work necessarily and wholly comprises its many separate parts.

“Only a bad artist thinks he has a good idea. A good artist does not need anything.” ~ Ad Reinhardt

There is a class of artist called an artist’s artist. Often this means someone a little under the public’s radar who is especially appreciated by other artists. Naturally, artists see things in art that others don’t; it seems natural that practitioners in nearly any field would be attuned to things about which non-practitioners aren’t. In their field, practitioners have a low threshold for nonsense: bull, baloney, bosh, bunk, crap, drivel, flimflam, gibberish, guff, hogwash, hokum, hooey, malarkey, phooey, poppycock, rubbish. In art this means: an appreciation of conceptual clarity but intolerance of clever ideas; a tendency towards content relative to the possibility of living rather than that which is hopelessly theoretical, nihilistic, or useless; a level of craft or skill logically relative and subservient to the concept; trust in images and materials, observation and sensibility, reflection and resonance; avoidance of a priori explanation, labels, and categories; open rather than closed meanings; and a tendency to defy expectations in ordinary ways with extraordinary effect.

And so, Altoon Sultan works without nonsense, an artist’s artist. In her art one never detects fear of attempt, concern for acceptance, or hesitation of direction. Of course, fear, concern, and hesitation may be part of the artist’s process, but better if these are not present in the product. Instead, one finds in Sultan’s art a strength of purpose, disregard for external pressures, and confidence in direction and execution.

We see:

  • For example, consider only two paintings, Blues, 2013, and Orange Rounds, 2014: both are egg tempera on parchment stretched over panels smaller than a sheet of notebook paper. Each depicts a detail of machinery, something functional and heavy: in the former, a handle that turns and locks, in the latter, a sphere that rotates. The machinery is mold-cast metal, some exposed, some colored; one can nearly feel thick coats of color on metal, a hard surface, durable, like baked enamel. Each image is a slice of reality; the exact function of each is a mystery, though clearly functional, and likely related to construction, manufacturing, or agrarian use. Compositionally, these paintings lean towards the geometric: the rectangle, the sphere, precise edges, things fitted together, interrelated. The egg tempera is flat, soft, sensuous, carefully stroked and blended. Depicted light and shadow floats across the surface; there is a quality of the outdoors, of labor, of years, of something built to last, of being handled and having waited years to be noticed. Tools are symbolic of economy and exchange, but increasingly this value, despite the aura of beauty and reward, now, or for now, lies in the past, diminished, nostalgic, melancholic. Iconic but common, Sultan’s paintings carry the weight of Giotto’s frescoed sculpture-like yet emotive figures and light-filled, human-scaled architecture in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.
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  • The hooked wool drawings consist of hand-dyed wool, egg tempera, and linen. Hybrids of painting and textile, simple image and easily available material, they additionally seem hybrids, in shorthand, of icon and kitchen craft, of Malevich and rag rug, of visual complexity and design. In one instance hooked wool might be line and then gather into a field, or painted areas shift from figure to background. Hanging on the wall from pins, draped under their own weight, they are susceptible to moving air, and are wall hangings not seen as the kind of plane or view (window or surface) a painted canvas or panel can become. Because of this, Sultan’s textile pieces initially occupy the viewer’s space, seeming to have a decorative-appearing quality. However, their lack of actual decorative motifs prompts the question: what are these? As drawings, they extend drawing’s definition in the same way as Alan Saret’s wire pieces, Fred Sandback’s yarn sculptures, and Christine Hiebert’s blue tape drawings. In the two-part piece 2013 #18, 2013, the linen ground becomes background and then solid; the gap between the two pieces of linen is an electric expanse across which solid and empty are questioned. In 2013 #12, 2013, a graceful curving line spans the horizon separating painted linen and wool-stuffed linen; four distinct areas (plain linen, painted red and blue, yellow wool) shift from flat to spatial, delineated to inscribed. The hooked wool drawings hold no disguises, but are more than they appear.
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  • The impulse to print and replicate is intrinsic to art and audience. It’s a shame, we almost think, that there is only one, so why not ten, or fifty, or one hundred, or more? One-of-a-kind is frighteningly rare, it verges on the invisible, and even a small edition is exclusive. To make a multiple reduces monetary value, but since it implies generosity and popularity it also creates social value, a sense of belonging and possibility. In art, the multiple is typically mechanical; the members of the edition must be identical. But what about a printing medium that limits numbers, wherein the printing mechanism has a short life? One of the most basic print mediums is the potato: sliced, carved, inked, and stamped, it is the most accessible means of multiple image making, but with obvious limitations. In Sultan’s prints, either made with potato or corrugated cardboard, intuition, speed, weight, pressure, and placement are paramount. In Untitled 11, 2013 the six stamped identical ovals—three overlapping horizontally above three overlapping vertically—form a "T" shape, seemingly improvisatory, momentary and captured, progressively fainter from the first stamp of ink to the sixth. In Untitled 10, 2013 a single yellow square is decisively yet gesturally stamped in the middle of a sheet of paper, a gesture with the weight of a shout, a loaded word, a karate chop, one gold brick, a clear chord, a forkful of something delicious, a throw of the dice, chance and fate, willed accident, acceptance of the imperfect. A lesson.
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  • It is easy to discard scraps, to assume they are too small to amount to meaning. But vegetable trimmings and bones make stock and soup. Letters make words and then sentences. And bits of cloth and thread make quilts. Likewise, Sultan’s parchment scraps, left over from painting surfaces, are used to make boxed sets of small, abstract paintings. There are three principles here: first, waste nothing; second, accumulated small things become bigger single things; and third, the pieces of any single thing need not be fixed, so that rearranging parts into new combinations is not only acceptable, but encouraged. And so like the letters and words, the trimmings and bones, and letters, words, and sentences, the box pieces are open to play and variety. Open the box and arrange the small paintings into any configuration. It is both a whimsical and a serious game, seeing how pieces stand alone or connect. The artist, with generosity and trust, gives up control and allows the viewer to finish or remake the piece.

Declared and explicit meaning is a poor measure of art. Art’s veracity is found in the thing itself. Often quoted, in Paterson William Carlos Williams wrote, "No ideas but in things," that is, don’t tell the meaning, but express the meaning in, or allow it to emerge from, the image or object. In other words, trust the medium. Writers are told, show, don’t tell. For visual artists this means make, use the medium, use conventions or not, but don’t explain; in the work itself, experience and meaning is found. Unfortunately, our times increasingly encourage artists to travel single paths, and to explain and remove all uncertainty or ambiguity, which, as Ad Reinhardt said, is a bad idea. But an artist like Altoon Sultan makes images in multiple ways that have independent meaning and also accumulate into greater meaning, expressing an overall vision. That is the larger approach, the more open life, more inclusive. It’s a more humane and sustainable model, giving us and the artist more to see and know.

Chris Ashley
Oakland, California
April 2014

RÉSUMÉ

Altoon Sultan (web site | blog)

  • Altoon Sultan was born in Brooklyn, New York, and now lives and works in Vermont
  • Altoon Sultan has held many solo shows in New York at Marlborough and at Tibor de Nagy and throughout the United States over more than 30 years. Her work has been included in numerous group shows, including many at museums such as the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Philbrook Museum of Art, the Hood Museum, the Fleming Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Art, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Awards include two National Endowment for the Arts grants, an Academy Award in Art from the American Academy, and a medal for painting from the National Academy of Design, where she was elected a member in 1995. Her work is in many museum collections, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York: the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; the Yale University Art Gallery; the Library of Congress; and the Fleming Museum of the University of Vermont.
  • For more information and images see Altoon Sultan’s web site.

     

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