All PHOTOS: Courtesy, Ruckus.
SPEAKING: Sarah CrownerQ&A with L Autumn Gnadinger
Sarah Crowner is best known as a painter working in hardline geometric abstraction. Her work often transforms entire spaces with a signature combination of stitched-canvas acrylic paintings and large-scale installations of handmade tile—also conceived of as paintings. Crowner’s work has been shown all over the world, and this weekend unveiled Clay Bodies: Moving Through Ceramics at KMAC Museum. In an expansion of her exhibition career, Crowner acts as both artist and show organizer, choosing selections of her own work, and pieces from various regional collections and archives. She emphasized during the opening that “I want you to think about finding your own solutions. I don’t want to present myself as some kind of expert—just as someone asking questions.” L Autumn Gnadinger sat down with Sarah Crowner in the back of KMAC’s second floor gallery, overlooking the Ohio River.
LG: You’ve mentioned before that you are interested in considering groupings of objects—like the many ceramic objects in this room—not as points on a linear art history, but more as arcs on a circular sense of time. Tell me more more about the significance of that for you in your practice, and how this show might help bend traditional conceptions of art history for viewers?
SC: Often, some museums tend to present exhibitions in an authoritarian way, as if we are students and the museum is a kind of teacher, or expert. And so a lot of times exhibitions, especially those involving historical artifacts, create a linear, one-directional narrative. In this case I tried to create a circular presentation around objects that I'm connected to or I have certain feelings about. I am not against museums; they are among my favorite places. I’m more interested in using my instinct and subjectivity as an artist, as a way to present an exhibition similar to how I make a painting. I'm not interested in providing answers. And so hopefully you can come to the museum and rather than finding answers, I’d rather you can come asking questions.
LG: Going off of that, this show is a total celebration of ceramic. No matter one’s background in clay, there is something novel to be found here. I think that’s in part, because you didn’t track down an existing lineage to sculpt a story around. It’s all over the place. There’s work from the artists you share studio space with in Brooklyn, there’s anti-modernist pots from Berea, there’s a tiny Picasso, a Voulkos... I could go on. It is playful, and almost absurd in moments, and really feels like a turned-over toy box. Am I on the right track with that?
SC: That’s true, that’s a great metaphor. I think wonder and play and curiosity and surprise are all elements important to art as a whole.
LG: What are some other ways that you engage with your notion of play?
SC: Well with my painting practice or with this show, there's precision, definitely, but there's also this casual lightness to it. Like the lilac wall next to us, with Betty Woodman, Picasso, and the Persian tile fragment reproduction from 1977: three very different makers, but I thought they worked well together visually with this particular turquoise/celadon color that the makers all used—that was one thread. I also liked this idea that the Persian tile fragment is a kind of thought bubble coming out of the Minotaur.
LG: I’m reminded right now of Super Mario from Nintendo. Its creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, has often described the whole franchise as a series of stage plays, where the characters on screen are just acting out different scripts. Nobody really hurts each other, or necessarily intend what they say. All of the actions are imaginations which can operate as more than just what they initially seem. I’m looking around and see the literal stage curtain behind the wooden table full of vessels, which have always been a kind of proxy for humans. Is this demonstration an extension of other work for you that taps into dance and performance?
SC: Yes, I have a whole side of my practice which is involved with stage design and backdrops and costumes for stage performances. There's a painted and sewn backdrop downstairs also—a curtain—which has been on the road for six years. And then up here, we have this backdrop that I had commissioned a scenic painter to paint in upstate New York based on a backdrop I made for Lincoln Center and ABT earlier this year.
It was made specifically for this wall at KMAC which it is now hanging on, and in front of it is this long curving wooden table which was made using the techniques and materials of the stage. So yeah, it kind of really does feel like there's a stage in front of a backdrop and then you have all these little ceramic bodies—clay bodies—on top. So they're kind of the protagonists for this space between stage and museum here, especially in that room.
The table of glaze samples made by Ester Kislin on the banana yellow wall is kind of doing the same thing. And I also see them as actors or dancers on a kind of stage, or at the very least it's like a group portrait.
LG: We are talking about many of them, but this show combines a range of ceramic pieces by other artists along with some of your own work. Outside of this show, you are best known as a painter working both in acrylic and, more recently, handmade tile. Tell me about the relationship between those two methods of working for you.
SC: The first time I presented the tile platform in a gallery setting I wanted to make a painting that you could walk on, like a painting that was really literally part of the architecture. Tile was a logical material choice for me because it is inherently hard edged geometric abstraction. There's a repetition, there's a composition, there's color, obviously, and if they're glazed in an interesting way, there's a lot of variation within each tile. They're not industrially made, but handmade terracotta tiles, so they're all quite different in some ways; they have crackling, or glaze blobs on various surfaces.
I began thinking of that as a painting. So rather than tiling the floor, I created a raised platform which almost fills the gallery room, but there was a three inch reveal around the edge of it. All of that was to suggest this as an autonomous object, like a painting is. It looks like it can be portable, even though it was too heavy to do that of course. But the revealed edges were very important—maybe one of the most important things--because when you raise it and frame it, it relates more to the language of painting, and has a certain autonomy.
All these things kind of overlapped with canvas paintings, and part of what it is about now is slowing down and making one's body aware of where it is in the world. So, you know, in New York, when you go visit galleries you can run in and run out and you can see a whole show in under a minute, if you really wanted to. It's crazy. But if one can be kind of halted or slowed down by a changing in the way that the floor feels underneath your feet. “Oh, it's not the sidewalk anymore, it's this kind of glassy blue pattern under my feet.” Or, it's a soft wood that feels gentle and feels quiet. Would that make you read the painting differently? Even if a painting is hanging in the most boring wall, it has a relation to that boring wall.
LG: And that makes space for viewers to introduce themselves into those relationships and have that conversation. Right?
SC: Exactly. The painting is not the all-knowing authority, it's more of the environment that I'm interested in—the relationship the painting has with the viewer and with the architecture.
LG: Which reinforces this sense of discovery in your constructed spaces. I remember, for instance, your show MASS MoCA featured tile patterns of some tessellating geometry that were somewhat recently discovered?
SC: Right, the pattern was discovered by a group of mathematicians in England, a new pentagon pattern. Hexagons are easily repeatable, but pentagons are difficult because they're five sides instead of six.
LG: That’s another interesting example of you reaching forward and backwards in time in that circular way. There’s this advancing agenda of mathematics coupled with this entrenched arcane logic of tile making, or your references to other areas of art history. Your paintings often come to you first by way of found imagery, or at least found shapes in imagery. From there you find ways to isolate areas, and process the content—cutting canvas apart, stitching it back together, restretching it—to produce something more autonomous than was there to begin with. Does the archive-quality of their origin feel especially important or is that more a part of your workflow?
SC: About the circular nature of, of art history… everything's coming from something, and everything's looking back as much as it is looking forward. I'm interested in naming those sources, yes. But I also don't want to place too much importance or reverence on them. They are tools. I use art history as a tool, but I also use math or a picture of a tree or nature as materials to work with. So once you start thinking about art history as a medium that can be cut up and reassembled, reworked, and painted over or uncovered in a physical way, this is what’s really interesting to me.
LG: Not to put things on a line again, but what do you think the oldest thing is in here versus the newest thing?
SC: The newest thing would probably be Cassandra's untitled sculptures. I think we took them out of the kiln like the day before we packed them to come here. So that's the freshest. And the oldest would be maybe this Egyptian one from a burial cave, 3500 BCE.
LG: Across time and space, very few of the makers represented here knew, or considered that their objects would end up together in a room like this one day. You are ostensibly a New York artist, and in some senses, far from home. Do you feel any important shift happening to the way your work is read when it is hung on a wall in Brooklyn, to the way it is hung on a wall in Kentucky? A place where the bifurcation between art and craft has left materials like ceramics—at least in recent history—less able to champion itself like modernist ceramics were better able to in the Northeast?
SC: I'm curious about this, too. I wonder who might be angry because there's a lot of people who take craft very seriously here.
LG: And especially a certain lineage of craft.
SC: Yes, certainly, like am I being too irreverent with the materials, too playful? Turning them upside down and placing one next to another on the table instead of on a pedestal?
LG: Well, I've lived here most of my life, and while it feels appropriately respectful to me, I'm still unsure about that larger reaction, too. So I think we're both eager to find out. Maybe we can end on an easier surprise: many of the objects in this room came from these massive collections and archives, right? Many of which you are also seeing for the first time this week. Is there something in here that has surprised you the most?
SC: Yes. Scale. I guess I didn't pay that close attention to the scale of the objects, especially the Berea College ones. We found one bowl that was three quarters of an inch by one inch. It's amazing. On these lists I looked carefully for color, for history, for maker—but I didn't look at the scale. Another was that Graham Marks was much, much bigger than I thought. But I'm glad now there were these great surprises. No regrets. Love it.
Clay Bodies: Moving Through Ceramics is on display in the second floor gallery at KMAC through April 7, 2019.
KMAC Museum is located at 715 West Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202 and is open Tuesday-Saturday from 10am-6pm and Sunday from 10am-5pm.
L Autumn Gnadinger
Contributor and Digital Content Editor for Ruckus
Left: Tile Painting, Blue Green Terra Cotta (2016). Glazed terracotta tiles, grout.
Right: Tile Painting, Yellow Terra Cotta (2016). Glazed terracotta tiles, grout.
Left: Untitled, (2018) & Untitled, (2018).
Right: Glaze Archive, (2017-2018).
Collection of Tiles, (n.d).
Custom tables by Julian Hoeber.
Left: Untitled, (n.d).
Middle: Reproduction of Persian Architectural Tile, (1977).
Right: Minotaure, (n.d).
Sarah Crowner standing next to Sliced Red and Blue (New Weed) 2, (2017).
Acrylic on canvas, sewn.