In the late 1990s — nearly three decades after Altoon Sultan first gained attention for her meticulously painted scenes of rural New England and New York farms, she began moving away from panoramic views to tightly focused glimpses. You could say that she began moving closer to what she was looking at. Spurred by her use of a camera, the narrowing of Sultan’s focus was further shaped by the particularities of the medium she has recently adopted for her paintings.
In 2010, inspired by an exhibition of 15th-century illuminated manuscripts that she saw at the Morgan Library, she began painting in egg tempera on parchment stretched over wood, always no larger than 12 inches in height or width. Alongside her paintings in egg tempera on parchment, Sultan began two other tightly defined groups of work: monochrome bas-reliefs made out of porcelain, and drawings using black ink and white gouache on hand-toned paper.
In the case of the reliefs, the inspiration was Lorenzo Ghiberti, the early Renaissance artist who created the bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery. A drawing by Albrecht Durer on blue rag paper, where the ink didn’t sit on the surface but soaked into it, inspired her to begin using black ink and white gouache on hand-toned paper.
Although Sultan works in three distinct mediums, the method by which she decides her subject matter is the same. She first uses a digital camera to take photographs of farm implements. While based on a detail that caught her attention, she is not interested in a transposing a realist view to a painting, a wall relief, or a drawing. This is part of what gives her work a distinct and compelling twist.
One change that Sultan effects in all three mediums is color. In the paintings, she might develop a tonal palette of yellows or greens or blues that seem to have little to do with her subject. Merged with her tightly cropped, close-up views, the paintings are poised on the very edge of abstraction.
“Yellow Tilts” (2017), a painting in her current show, Altoon Sultan at McKenzie Fine Art (January 9–February 10, 2019), measures 7 by 10 inches. It depicts a cluster of closely valued yellow industrial objects that are impossible to name: some seem to be solid planes, while others are linear geometric forms (part of an I-beam?).
They sit in a space that is indeterminate — somehow both solid and immaterial. While the interplay of light and shadow helps anchor the view in a tactile, three-dimensional world, the jumble of planes and geometric forms tilt toward abstraction. We know we are looking at things but we don’t know what the things are. Naming hovers just beyond our ken.
The perceptual zone that Sultan explores is both representational and abstract. Always a scrupulous artist of the highest order, she is interested in the formal qualities inherent to a particular medium; she wants to learn what it is good for. We see curving shapes in the paintings, but no flowing forms.
The real-life counterparts of the forms we see in Sultan’s paintings are stiff and maintain their shape. They tend toward the geometric and manmade. The space they inhabit is often shallow, and there are no signs of organic life. Sultan’s interest is in color and light, and how they inform each other.
In the bas-reliefs, Sultan often includes a fluid form, which we are apt to read as some kind of fabric or material that can be folded over or draped. By making the reliefs monochrome, she enables the viewer to concentrate on the behavioral properties intrinsic to the forms. In the painted porcelain, “Sliding Planes” (2018), which measures 8 1/4 by 10 5/8 by 3/4 inches, she fits together a group of soft and bendable planes.
The form that occupies the upper right corner suggests a flat plane edged on the top and bottom by perpendicular planes. Was this something that originally lay on the floor or ground? It certainly seems so. The shifting of the view from ground plane to wall introduces a disorientation that is part of the way we experience the work: we become highly conscious of looking when we scrutinize Sultan’s work, no matter what medium she is working in.
The other thing that strikes me about bas-reliefs is how they echo the matter from which they are made: clay is impressionable material that can be pressed into a plane and folded over. In “Angle Over Folds” (2018), which measures 8 1/4 by 1 3/4 by 11/16 inches, two diagonal bands, one reaching down from the upper left hand corner and the other from the upper right, join to form a vector. Together, they function like a seatbelt, holding the dominant, fabric-like form in position. Formally speaking, Sultan’s bas-reliefs often incorporate elements that suggest motion and gravity. Am I wrong in thinking there is something funereal about the folds and evocations of drapery?
In the drawings, Sultan works on sheets of hand-toned paper as large as 16 inches on a side. Using white and black liquid mediums, she defines a rectangular frame within the paper’s physical rectangle. This reads like an opening, a carefully carved out space in which her forms move, are suspended, or sit.
The view is partial. Using contrasts of dark and light that incorporate the toned paper’s color into the composition, she depicts palpable abstract forms, such as tubing or cutout metal shapes whose function remains enigmatic to us. Sultan wants us to see her familiar yet cryptic forms not as functioning parts but as things unto themselves.
There are connections and differences among the three bodies of work. The spaces of the paintings seem to be a Lilliputian view of a wondrous world of color and light, while the drawings are more about shadow and light, and the bas-reliefs focus on the relation of bendable planes and fluid forms.
Sultan is a solo sojourner who has followed her own path ever since she began exhibiting. While her work shares something with the late geometric paintings of Ralston Crawford and the still-life views of Walter Tandy Murch, she is essentially an unclassifiable artist.
Working in egg tempera on parchment, in porcelain, and with black ink and white gouache on hand-toned paper, Sultan honors the long tradition of artisanship that is one of the foundations of art making.
She is both the artist and the artisan — a view that goes against the grain that characterizes art as a purely conceptual activity, a form of entrepreneurship. By working with these materials, and finding a way to be true to what she perceives as their pictorial limitations, Sultan has found a supple way to challenge herself as well as pursue her investigation of the elemental world of perception and touch.
During the past decade, the fastidiousness that was central to Sultan’s panoramic views has become more euphonious and puzzling. While the source of her subjects might be farm implements, the transformations she guides them through, according to the particular requirements of a technique, become a form of celebration and praise inflected by a trace of melancholy.
That merging is what pulls us back to looking at Sultan’s works and thinking about what we are looking at.
Altoon Sultan continues at McKenzie Fine Art (55 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through February 10.