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Altoon Sultan: A Studio Visit

Art New England, August 9, 2012


By Craig Stockwell

On a cool rainy June day I visited Altoon Sultan at her home/studio in Groton, Vermont. I wanted to visit Altoon because I think that she has gone through an evolution in her work that speaks to what I see as a generous and expanded role of the studio artist.

It begins with Facebook. There's nothing sacrosanct about Facebook but it happens to be, at this moment, a truly useful tool for me as an artist. Blogs are passing out of their usefulness. Facebook is alive and the conversation amongst the art community, if you can locate it, is rich and engaged in all of the aspects of that which those of us that love this conversation do love.

Altoon is dedicated to Facebook and that is how my friendship with her deepened from a passing acquaintance to a lively interaction. An important aspect of Altoon's story is the transition from a fully engaged New York studio artist with twenty years of showing at Marlborough Gallery, New York to an isolated Vermont artist living in an 1830's remote cape and fully engaging in a daily conversation with a lively art community.

There's a tension here. In some ways Altoon is shadowed by a sense of having lost the connection to being a successful artist. Having lost her gallery I feel that she has moved into a rich, connected and powerfully self-directed engagement in a wide field of artistic endeavor and questioning. She is living art rather than simply going to the studio.

In my studio visits one question I've been asking is, "What are the edges you're afraid of…where do you think you might stray into danger with your work?" Altoon immediately answered, "Sentiment." A horror of the sentimental. She also added, "The insistent call for authenticity, for showing the artist's hand. The sense that realism somehow lacks emotional commitment."

The work she became known for at Marlborough was large farm landscapes. These paintings were developed using exhaustive traditional drawing as the base and oil paint as the medium. The paintings eschewed photo-realism for a more visual accomplishment of reality based on traditional technical method. As the paintings evolved she began to add notes of the tension between the pastoral expectation and the reality of real farms. Exquisite objects with a note of worry, a question about our notions of farming versus the reality and, by extension, the larger worries about humans in nature. Within this work Altoon began to focus on details of farm machinery using digital photos to gather her images and began developing small, nearly abstract paintings of forms and color. A long suppressed (and feared) fascination for abstraction surfaced. Perhaps she also began a move away from the (perceived and complex) sentiment that was growing in the farm paintings. In following this desire she lost the interest of her gallery, however, and soon found that she was, for better and worse, set free to pursue her own interests in picture making.

Around this time Altoon was transitioning to fulltime living in Vermont and she fully grasped that there was a need to develop a sustaining and sustainable practice because it was no longer necessarily going to come from elsewhere. 

At present there are several different projects going on, all purposeful and all ardently communicated through postings on Facebook: First, there are the paintings. The paintings are small tempera-on- parchment formal studies of the color and forms of machinery. The paintings are vivid in their clear presence and are evidence of a love of close-slow observation. Then there are sets of textile abstractions that have developed using traditional rug-hooking techniques with hand dyed wool; here abstraction sings simply and boldly. The textiles are both accomplished and casual in a blend that recalls Richard Tuttle. There are certainly the photographs themselves, after having initially considered these as worth exhibiting Altoon has stepped back from that idea and holds the photos now as information. Next there is the garden, the art of gardening and the photographs of the location itself, close observation of a very local and beloved site. Finally there is the aesthetic attention to the house and the land itself. And all of this becomes formatted and rigorously communicated from a quiet farm in Vermont via a beautifully constructed blog, "Studio and Garden" (follow her blog) and Facebook (view her page here). Within Facebook Altoon is also a generous researcher and compiler of works by other artists both contemporary and historic as well as offering a myriad of thoughts, visits and observations. A recent post included images of granite carving from the cemeteries of Barre, Vermont.

At a certain or many points in our work as artists we face encouragement or discouragement, inclusion and rejection. Ultimately there is always the need to reexamine the questions that are deeply held within us and find the means and the artistic voice to address these. And then find the means to communicate. Altoon Sultan has moved with quiet determination and rigorous vigor to reinvent herself as an artist and within her home and studio she has shown how a deep commitment and love of artistic possibility can emerge in new forms.