Gorgeously Unorthodox: A Studio Visit with Sarah Crowner

Looking at Sarah Crowner’s work for the first time, even through a computer screen, my first thought was, “oh, my goodness, it’s alive.” I wasn’t even entirely sure where that thought came from. At first glance, Crowner’s work looks like your somewhat standard-fare modern abstraction: inkblot-like swirls of color spreading across a stretched fabric mounted on a wall, arranged in different configurations. And it is that. But what Crowner does is so much more than that, and a virtual visit to her studio confirmed how and why.


Crowner deals primarily with painted fabric, sewn together before being stretched and fitted to frames or walls. Her studio almost looks more like a costume or set design shop from a theater space than it does a traditional artist’s studio—it’s like the backstage room of some whimsical adventure story. And to some degree, that’s the truth: Crowner has designed sets for the American Ballet Theater, and in some ways her pieces are designed to be interacted with. A viewer might walk up to a piece on the wall, back away from it, walk close again, and get a different view each time. This element of her work, Crowner says, is integral to the way that she wants audiences to understand it. She calls it “attentiveness,” the quality that she wants her work to embody. Painting, she says, is an experience to be felt with the whole body, not just vaguely stared at in a panned glance across blank gallery walls.

As for her work designing sets, she explains, that’s entirely different—when it’s viewed from so far away, she has to be more generous with the design, making sure that it is meant to be used. There’s an extra changeability, an ephemerality that gets attached to a piece of art when it’s used in conjunction with ballet, which is an art form in itself. The audience can’t get closer or further away from the art, but it comes alive with the dance. Ballet is classic and structured and inherently a little bit conservative, but Crowner’s art is deeply… not. The juxtaposition created by such a combination is a beautiful contradiction, and it is one that Crowner says is the result of experience combined with research combined with instinct.


That same combination, in conjunction with the attentiveness and attention-capturing nature of her more gallery-specific work, is what makes Crowner’s work so impressive. Not every element is intentional, but it is all so carefully crafted, put together with colors and a medium that somehow still manages to speak for itself. It’s unique, which is a thing that gets harder and harder to be with every passing year.

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