Fruits and Flowers, Cast in Graphic Black: Donald Sultan at Galerie Forsblom

Throughout history and across cultures, fruit and flowers have always been a favorite painterly subject —alongside the pastoral landscape and the nude woman. While the standard still life may have nothing new to say, modern takes on the classic tradition offer a fresh perspective on the particular beauty of berries and blooms. New York-based artist Donald Sultan does just this, employing unconventional materials to create starkly minimalist renderings of lemons, tulips, pomegranates, and poppies. 

The poppy is Sultan’s flower of choice, a signature that’s quickly evident at his latest show at Helsinki’s Galerie Forsblom. Not that you’d immediately recognize the poppy, drained as it is of its cheerful red hue, portrayed instead in oppressive black. Herein lies the visual interest of Sultan’s work. By eliminating the familiar texture and color of his subject, Sultan pushes the viewer to consider its shape and weight, geometry and symmetry. The flower that dominates Button Down Modernism 1921 (2014), for example, is heavy, almost imposing; the petals are black, and even the stamen is rendered in a dark charcoal gray. The eye is drawn to the background, a geometric modernist composition of large orange, blue, gray, and black rectangles. Button Down Boogie Woogie Sept 20 (2014) is a variation on the same idea, but clearly appropriates Piet Mondrian’s iconic Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43) as its background. Herringbone and Black Buttons July 11 (2014), on the other hand, is a more playful—and more literal—pattern of button-like black poppies set against a sky-blue-and-white herringbone background. The effect is stylish, the look bordering on retro. These pieces are, in other words, a far cry from a traditional painting of a table-top vase of colorful flowers.

There’s little question that the color black—the choice to use it, and the manner with which Sultan applies it—is a force behind these powerful works. Although the artist is known as a painter, these weighty dark shades aren’t achieved through simple oils or acrylics on canvas. To create his works, Sultan begins with a base of Masonite and then covers it with vinyl floor tiles cut into shapes. He then adds plaster or tar to any empty spaces before finally painting the top layer to complete the work. The process and product come together in an intriguing paradox, as Sultan reimagines the still life, using heavy-duty industrial materials to portray subjects as delicate and sensuous as flowers.

Bridget Gleeson        

Donald Sultan” is on view at Galerie Forsblom, Helsinki, Jan. 16–Feb. 8, 2015.

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