With the constant warnings from the surgeon general and the slow barring of smokers from all public locales, the American public has managed to blithely ignore all which remains appealing about smoke. We have forgotten that alluring image of white through black air, those seductive rings floating in space. Donald Sultan, in his exhibit “The Smoke Rings,” has reclaimed this ethereal nature. The exhibit, which runs through Nov. 25th at the University Museum of Art, pays a stunning tribute both to his subject and his talent.

Sultan has been a popular figure in contemporary art since he arrived on the scene in the mid-“70s. He received a BFA from the University of North Carolina and an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His work is in collections all over the world, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, The Guggenheim, The Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art all in New York.

Sultan is now in his mid-50s. “After I left school, I decided it was important to start putting imagery back into abstract painting,” he said in an interview with the Phoenix New-Times. “I got a call from a gallery in Chicago saying the tiles were falling off. Underneath the tiles was the black glue you use to adhere tiles to the floor. I decided I liked the black. When 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 a depth of being a real seascape.”

He has experimented with many kinds of media, including painting, prints and sculpture. ” The Smoke Rings” reflects Sultan”s continuous interest in modernizing the classic form of still life.

To create the paintings for this exhibit, Sultan first cut shapes into 12-inch vinyl floor tiles, which were applied to masonite panels. He then filled the cut-out space with plaster or tar, and then painted over the entirety of the work. These massive paintings, which are held in the main room of the Museum of Art, are confrontational both in size and subject. In the end, his “still lifes” are almost surreal, an effect reached by both the unique medium and his transitional subject.

British writer Max Bragg has also contributed to the exhibit. In the past, Bragg has collaborated his poetry with the photography of Ralph Gibson. His words, which pay attention to our own associations with smoke be it Marlene Dietrich, smoked fish or hash enhance Sultan”s achievements.

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