Sultan of Style
New York painter Donald Sultan long ago abandoned the tried-and-true tools and materials customarily associated with an artist.
Eschewing canvas, Sultan instead opts for heavy-duty Masonite topped with cheap, run-of-the-mill linoleum tiles -- the kind seen on the floors of old cafeterias and kitchens -- as a base for his imagery. In lieu of brushes, he wields a trowel, blowtorch and belt sander. He's also traded in oil and acrylic paints (not to mention a stock painting palette) for roofing tar (a.k.a. butyl rubber), plaster, spackle and occasionally latex house paint, which he spreads on his impossibly heavy "canvases," then buffs, scrubs, rubs and/or drips with industrial solvent to achieve his now-famous painterly effects.
The unexpected product of this Home Depot-meets-Winslow Homer approach to process and subject can be seen in "Donald Sultan: In the Still-Life Tradition," on display at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art until September 9. SMOCA is the last stop for "Still-Life Tradition," which originated at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis, Tennessee, and has made the rounds of several high-profile venues, including the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (where, by the way, the artist's brother, Terrie Sultan, has been curator of contemporary art for more than a decade).
Charges of rank nepotism be damned. Sultan's enormous 8-foot-by-8-foot still lifes, churned out during the past 15 years, deserve to have hung in the Corcoran. In fact, they look downright sumptuous in the two cavernous galleries of SMOCA in which they have been simply but effectively installed. Sultan's works featuring an odd but mighty assortment of lemons, oranges, eggs, tomatoes, flowers, vases, buttons and dominoes are lush, enveloping paintings that embody an upending postmodern treatment of subject matter that has been in vogue, in one form or another, since the early Renaissance.
Born in Asheville, North Carolina, 50-year-old Sultan came of artistic age in the mid-1970s when he moved to New York after receiving a fine arts degree from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a master's from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. It was a time when exalted abstract expressionism had crystallized into religious doctrine, Pop Art had cut a swath through the American cultural landscape, the death knell for painting had been noisily tolled, and Minimalism and Conceptualism had become the art movements du jour.
Sultan bucked all the then-current trends by doing landscapes, seascapes and still lifes on a grand scale, albeit with a twist. "After I left school, I decided it was important to start putting imagery back into abstract painting," the painter told a lecture audience at SMOCA recently. "Since I grew up painting on the floor, I decided to rip and lift the floor up and put in on the wall."
Sultan's adoption of industrial materials and techniques to approach a pre-Industrial Revolution genre was sparked by a serendipitous encounter in an elevator. "In New York, I earned money building lofts and doing construction work," recounts the artist. "I was in an elevator one day and saw a person cutting linoleum tile and I asked him how they cut around the center key of the elevator. [I found out] you just heat it up and it gets very soft. So I said, 'Give me a couple of tiles' and they did, New York not being as unfriendly as you're led to believe."
Experimenting with his newly discovered tile treasure, Sultan ended up fashioning a sturdy supporting structure, laying the linoleum squares on top of it, heating them with a blowtorch and cutting the tiles into different shapes. Later, he would fill shapes and unintentionally broken-out areas in the tile with plaster or spackle.
Thus were spawned Donald Sultan's colossal paintings, aided later by yet another fortuitous occurrence that led him to use linoleum tile mastic as a painting material. "I got a call from a gallery in Chicago saying the tiles [on a painting] were falling off," Sultan remembers. "Underneath the tiles was the black glue you use to adhere tiles to the floor. I decided I liked the black. . . . [W]hen I put these two together, I thought it was such a breakthrough in abstract painting because it adhered to everything that was interesting to me -- flat painting that purely portrayed materials and yet it had the depth of being a real seascape."
In retrospect, these gargantuan paintings -- some with burnished or lunar-like tar surfaces, others elegantly drippy or cavalierly slashed with thinned-down tar -- vault over unemotional formalist concerns of space, surface, texture and structure (though as critic Robert Hughes has noted, "You sense that they have all been the subject of hard aesthetic argument"). And while it becomes apparent that these particular images make obvious historical references to the work of Matisse and Manet, they can't be dismissed as purely derivative, mere appropriation or frothy decoration (both appropriation and pattern-and-decoration were also trends that came and went from the art scene during the time in the '80s when Sultan made some of these paintings).
The objects that star in "Still-Life Tradition" have been plucked directly from the artist's own world, not some abstracted, scholarly universe of references or symbols. The black egg that appears in Black Egg and Tomatoes, August 4, 1998 and Black Eggs and Yellow Roses, February 25, 1999 was inspired by buckets of exotic 100-year-old dirt-and-herb-encrusted eggs Sultan stumbled upon in New York's Chinatown. Likewise, the Oriental-themed, silkscreened vases in Double Vase, 3/11/92 and Packed Vases, January 31, 1995 were inspired by Chinatown's plethora of cheap reproduction 19th-century Qing Dynasty vases. The black lemon mysteriously weighting down Four Lemons, February 1, 1985, with its overtly sexual suggestion of breasts or butts, was a direct result of taking yellow lemons, drying them and spray-painting them black.
No matter what the subject matter of his still lifes, Donald Sultan's paintings always seem to be a study in contrasts, a tense tango between rigidity and fluidity, chaos and order, gestural and geometric, organic and manmade. In this particular work, the artist skillfully pits the aggressive, brute, unyielding nature of raw building materials against refined composition using natural elements. The incongruity that results -- coupled with the paintings' sheer monumental proportions -- is mysteriously irresistible, though the viewer may not know why at first glance. Sultan's ingenious play with negative space also forces us to see a single work in more than one predetermined way, depending on whether we concentrate on positive imagery or the empty space that surrounds it.
"Donald Sultan: In the Still-Life Tradition" is an excellent choice of follow-up to SMOCA's seminal James Turrell show (which has been held over until September 9), since the work of both artists, each in their own particular ways, deals with and manipulates perception. Hopefully, SMOCA, under the aegis of its new director, will continue to present exhibitions of this quality, which are a refreshing change from the stodgy, uninspiring shows that have plagued SMOCA over the past few years. If it does, it will become a formidable force in the Valley's contemporary art scene, one that will justifiably command respect from the Valley's museum-going public.
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