Donald Sultan

Donald Sultan came of age artistically in Chicago in the mid ’70s. He returns here with his first one-person museum exhibition, a traveling show of paintings and charcoal drawings from the last seven years, organized by Lynne Warren, associate curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Sultan, who is known for his repertory of generic, highly associative images, is a talented artist; but his work cannot support the inflated rhetoric of Warren’s catalogue essay, which inadvertently matches the artist’s frequently overblown graphic and structural flourishes.

Sultan’s elaborate methods of constructing his bold, brightly colored pictures imbue them with sculptural presence. He assembles stretcher bars in 4-by-4-foot modules, with 3-inch steel rods to which squares of Masonite laminated to plywood are bolted, these covered with grids of 12-inch-square vinyl tiles, and finally topped with coatings of butyl rubber (the stuff of roofing tar), plaster, and paint. The largest of the works in the exhibition are composed of four modules forming roughly 8-by-8-foot squares. One could use these same materials to build a house—an apt analogy, as there is a certain “lived-in” quality that pervades Sultan’s images.

Cantaloupe Pickers Oct. 1, 1983 (the date refers to the time of the work’s completion) uses its field of green “rec room” tiles as a reference to farm acreage being harvested by four field hands, shown simply as black silhouettes with white wide-brimmed hats and large white sacks for collecting the melons. There’s not enough detail to localize the depiction: this field could be anywhere. But the phenomenal agents of its palette—green tile, black tar figures, white plaster hats—stand in for the lack of pictorial incident. The crudeness of the rendering draws further attention to the industrial exoticism of the materials. The most compelling scenes are several factory landscapes and cityscapes, loosely based on newspaper photos. The atmosphere in Plant May 29, 1985, a brushy yellow miasma loosely splashed over gray tiles and all but obscured by sooty bursts of tar, seems almost poisonous around the picture’s array of sinister towers and smokestacks. Battery May 5, 1986 also features a sickly yellow sky beneath which the figures on the promenade appear to totter. These works suggest the anxiety and claustrophobic tension in such proto-Expressionist masters as Edvard Munch (and, in fact, Warren mentions Munch’s Kiss in reference to the silhouetted lovers embracing in the foreground of Battery). But Sultan’s generous materiality isn’t convincing in the service of haunted asceticism; his sumptuous tarry black refers more effectively to the decorative draftsmanship of Félix Vallotton.

A series of four-panel paintings of lemons, from 1984–85, locates their flatly painted yellow forms within a flow of tar. Here the edges between modules suggest knife cuts quartering the fruit, but the graphic strength of these imposing images is finally empty rhetoric. A separate grouping of 12-inch-square still lifes of various fruits, from 1984–87, has a collective charm effectively connected to their modest size. Their smaller scale seems appropriate to their congenial and innocuous subject matter, without the bland, grande machine pretensions of the larger works. Sultan’s little plates of different combinations of apricots, apples, pears, eggs, limes, and lemons are rendered on plaster and tar, but the diminution of scale helps the artist’s pouring, scraping, and gouging to be seen as expressive effect.

Sultan’s charcoal drawings are too often merely affected. They are reminiscent of the laborious virtuosity of Joel Shapiro or Jene Highstein, but the easy intelligibility of Sultan’s tulips or lemons vitiates the risky ambiguity that gives the other artists’ abstracted forms their evocative presence.

Sultan’s enthusiasm and good work habits have been impressively realized through his inventory of unconventional materials, but there’s too much convention in his oeuvre to sustain a viewer through the kind of critical examination that this exhibition attempts to justify.

Buzz Spector