Friday, March 13, 2009

REVIEW: Altoon Sultan at Helen Day Art Center

by Marc Awodey

Altoon Sultan understands the abstract possibilities of realism. The sixteen egg tempera paintings of her solo show in the East Gallery of Stowe’s Helen Day Art Center, unify abstraction and realism in an intelligent way: by letting the abstract side dominate. As Piet Mondrian once wrote “All painting – the painting of the past as well as of the present – shows us that its essential plastic means were only line and color.” Of course Mondrian was a purist when it came to line and color, but his “present” is now our “past” and in the postmodern world we are free to be eclectic. Yet artists depart from formalism only at their peril, because the fundamentals of design and composition remain true across centuries. Sultan resembles Mondrian in realizing that painting must be distilled into its essential elements if it is to achieve timelessness.

Sultan focuses on the details of farm machinery in her hunt for geometry. Blue Angles is the close-up of something dusty and blue, with a circular hole. Deep inside the hole is a chain, but the dust, chain, and rusted blue aren’t the actual narrative of the piece. It’s about what Sultan's title says - angles. Likewise, Orange Arc isn’t the portrait of a weathered coil of hose. Nor is it about curves in the sun, like undulating dunes, or the coiled hose in shadow as it mildews. It’s about variations in value, graceful lines, and pure colors. “Every true artist has been inspired more by the beauty of lines and color and the relationships between them...” wrote Mondrian “...than by the concrete subject of the picture.” And such is apparently true with Sultan.
So formal issues seem paramount in Sultan’s images, but her virtuosity with egg tempera is also quite remarkable. Egg tempera dries very quickly and lends itself more readily to layering than blending, yet Sultan commands a wide array of chromatic gradations in every piece. Also, while Blue Angles is merely 12x12 inches, Sultan sometimes works on a grand scale up to 36”x48” - unusually large for the medium.

To learn more about Sultan’s technique, look out for her book The Luminous Brush, Painting With Egg Tempera; ISBN 0-8230-2888-7. It's currently out of print but there are 4 copies available through right now. Unfortunately the cost is about $150 a piece!  So scour your local used bookstores first. Sultan probably teaches as well as she paints.