Saturday, October 18, 2014

Altoon Sultan | McKenzie Fine Art

After following Sultan’s work for several years via her blog and FB, I was delighted to see the exhibition at McKenzie Fine Art in New York (up through November 16).  I first wrote about Sultan’s work two years ago here, highlighting her prints (potato and cardboard) and textiles (hooked wool drawings and textiles), which demonstrated her facility working with simple forms and at times pedestrian materials to produce bold and playful images.   

Sultan is an artist whose work cannot be neatly categorized, whether one considers her imagery or the medium. Rather than confining herself to one primary direction, she pursues several parallel bodies of work. What they all share is her pursuit of elegant geometry, subtle use of color, as well as her expertise and delight in the process of making. 

SULTAN, Curves and Square, 2013   Egg tempera on parchment stretched over wood panel    6 1/2 x 7 1/2 inches
This show, which includes nearly thirty pieces, offers quite an array of work by this versatile artist – intimate paintings executed in egg tempera, drawings on hand-toned paper, and hooked wool wall textiles.  Although linked by her attention to balancing form and color, each medium offers Sultan a different expressive vocabulary. It is also clear that for Sultan, preparing the materials is an engaging and meaningful part of her practice. The egg tempera paintings are executed on calfskin parchment stretched over wood panels; she hand dyes the wool for the textiles, and hand-tones the paper for her drawings.

The hooked wool textiles are the most reductive and visually striking of all Sultan’s works.  While the geometric forms are bold, the hooking process yields a rich surface texture comprised of numerous small strokes, gently undermining the minimalist sensibility of the compositions. Additionally, the size of each ‘stitch’ is such that the forms are often imperfect, with irregular edges. Although Sultan sometimes dips into illusionist space in this body of work, most of the textiles are strong figure/ground compositions. So while many of her textiles give a hat tip to Russian constructivism, those formal inclinations are balanced with a bit of whimsy.  (It is unfortunate that only five of Sultan's textiles are included in the exhibit, not giving them the presence they deserve).

SULTAN, Red Bars, 2014   Hand-dyed wool on linen    12 x 10 inches

SULTAN, Blue Arc, 2014   Hand-dyed wool on linen    25 3/4 x 12 inches

The drawings (egg tempera and graphite) on hand-toned paper seem to reflect another aspect of Sultan’s aesthetic—and I find viewing them to be somewhat spiritual, not unlike the meditative effect of Tantric drawings. In various interviews, Sultan mentions that this body of work was prompted by time spent at the Islamic wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Sultan tones the papers in hues ranging from subdued to saturated, and each sheet is rich with the irregularities of the dying process. Along with the overlay of painted forms, the networks of intersecting circles (drawn in graphite) remain quietly visible, hinting at the many possible directions inherent in each piece. These drawings have an air of mystery and merit slow looking.


SULTAN, #5, 2012   Egg tempera and graphite on hand-toned paper   15 x 15 inches
SULTAN, #31, 2014   Egg tempera and graphite on hand-toned paper   15 x 15 inches
SULTAN, #9, 2014   Egg tempera and graphite on hand-toned paper   15 x 15 inches

Sultan’s very intimate paintings (several as small as 6 x 8") are derived from her photographs of farm machinery, and focus on the geometry of the forms. By zooming in and closely cropping her images, she essentially rules out a consideration of subject matter. Rather, Sultan concentrates on capturing light and shadows, and juxtaposing small elements of these machine-made implements against one another, all in service to the composition. Yes, there is light and shadow -- pointing to depth and illusion, yet these are not depictions of objects. The irregular silhouettes of the shadows add a bit of surprise and spatial ambiguity to the compositions. Elements of the man-made world have been distilled and transformed into elegant, carefully balanced abstractions.

SULTAN, Blue Verticals, 2014   Egg tempera on parchment stretched over wood panel    8 1/4  x 6 1/8 inches

SULTAN, Light Fingers, 2014   Egg tempera on parchment stretched over wood panel    6 x 8  inches

SULTAN, Red Hose, 2014   Egg tempera on parchment stretched over wood panel    6 1/4 x 8 1/4 inches

SULTAN, Linked, 2014   Egg tempera on parchment stretched over wood panel    5 1/4 x 9 1/2 inches

Click here to read a 2013 interview with Sultan, conducted by Jeff Hogue on Figure/Ground.