September 16, 2004

Altoon Sultan's ambivalence: the new agricultural landscape.

"Culture/cultivation: thoughts on painting the landscape,"
Art Journal, Winter, 1998 by Altoon Sultan.

"My interest in the agricultural landscape has continued, however, as the place where actual landscape is constantly being made and changed - where the conventional beauty of undulating fields framed by tree-covered hills coexists with raw power in the guise of farm machines; where unnatural nature (scientifically bred cows, hybrid crops) is raised with chemicals and helped along by mounds of plastic. A major reason that I'm such an avid gardener is that I've seen the way our food is grown in California, with artificial fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.

"For Americans, farmers, along with cowboys, have been mythic figures, our "rugged individualists." But now the number of farmers is statistically insignificant, whereas when the country began, they constituted 95 percent of the population. The small family farm is now an anomaly, and large agribusinesses are the norm. Our food supply is cheap and plentiful, but at what cost to our health, soil, and water?

"When I look at a farm now, all these thoughts are bumping around in my head, motivating my work - but then there's the reality of the actual stuff in front of me. And this stuff - the silos, manure piles, plastic-wrapped hay, machinery - is exciting in its monumentality and sculptural presence. The ordinary ugliness of a tractor or a mound of old tires is weirdly beautiful. I'm more and more drawn to these things in the foreground, so that at times I can hardly call myself a landscape painter."

"Altoon Sultan at Tibor de Nagy - Brief Article,"
Art in America, Oct, 2001 by Peter Gallo

"Sultan's art-historical allusions are sophisticated and subtle: in "Ag-bagger, Danville, Vermont " (2000), at 80 by 60 inches the largest work in the show, a contraption of green and blue sheet metal and translucent plastic set in a citron-green field looks like a giant butterfly chrysalis, or possibly a "desiring machine" dreamed up by Matthew Barney. "Silage Covered by Plastic and Tires, Newbury, Vermont " (1999) presents a pile of old tires and black polyurethane plastic draped over a mountain of hay against a backdrop of irrigation tractors, Atrozine-bleached cornfields and unbearably bucolic summer hills. In a most unsettling way the image calls up both Smithson's earth-works and the figure of the agonized Magdalene in Grunewald's Crucifixion.

"Clearly, Sultan does not go nearly as far as Sue Coe or Damien Hirst to give us the carcasses of the others that have literally fleshed out the structure of what Derrida has called the "system of carnivorous virility." But the simple and stunning heterological compositions of these pictures, their often austere and uncanny beauty, and a realism that does not pastorally distance us from the means of agricultural production, profoundly disrupt any consoling illusion of peace and plenty."

New Yorker, April 16, 2001, p. 16.

"Unsentimental but radiantly sunny, Sultan's Vermont farmscapes offer an update on the state of agriculture, with its heavy machinery and plastic-wrapped silage. Their picturesque crispness belongs more to documentary than to Phot-Realism--they're part of the sober traditions of Eakins and Sheeler. They also hint heavily at Sultan's fondness for abstraction: the giant blue chute of an "Ag Bagger" (the agribusiness equivalent of a Diaper Genie) registers as a surreptitious minimalist installation, like a big Judd basking in a sculpture park."

Posted by Alan Ritch at September 16, 2004 12:38 PM