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Installation view of Sarah Crowner’s “Acrobat” exhibition. (All photographs by the author)

I first saw Sarah Crowner’s work at last year’s Whitney Biennial. Her series of black and white fabric paintings were stark, and imposing. Unfortunately next to Suzan Frecon and Tauba Auerbach (both in the same room) they seemed relatively run of the mill.

Her paintings are usually research based, are a fusion of fabric construction and artistic homage. She is best known for her series which explore and re–adjust specific compositions from art history. My problem has always been that her “paintings” seem a bit too informed, a bit too tasteful.

Her newest exhibition at Nicelle Beauchene Gallery on the Lower East Side continues the artist’s vein of inquiry but does so in a manner that is far more engaging and maybe a little bit riskier than the other stuff I have seen.

The current exhibition, Acrobat is based on moments of artistic cross pollination in the 2oth century, when composers, artists, directors, choreographers and writers exchanged ideas freely, often switching between mediums. Rather than tackling a specific piece the artist’s new work seeks to embody a moment in time, to encapsulate a feeling. I think perhaps there is something to this idea of artist as historian/ interpreter.

Installation view of “Acrobat”

Among the new paintings are a series of perhaps a dozen sculptures. Ranging in size, material and color they feel like a kind of woodshed modernism. Taken by themselves I’m not sure what I would think about them, in a broader context though they inform the paintings, make them feel a bit less serious. Hanging by the door is a drawing and collage on paper, bearing the name of the exhibit. Childlike and silly it is a breath of fresh air.

Frankly, this show is downright more fun than before. Even the most austere art needs a little bit of breathing room. Theory and mysticism are perhaps best delivered with a high five, a fart joke and some color. Crowner shows her true strength as  n artist capable of breathing life and feeling into research based projects. What her series based works accomplish is to portray a specific feeling, like a visual poem full of half quotes.

Installation View of “Acrobat”

Though it certainly wasn’t planned it is especially fortuitous that Crowner’s exhibition coincides with Black Mountain College and its Legacy at Loretta Howard gallery. That exhibition traces the interdisciplinary fervor at the famed art school. Rauchenberg made costumes, John Cage made artwork and ideas flowed from one medium and project to the next.

Why can’t we get all of our history lessons through art? I think the final lesson to learn from this is that in fact, much of the overly didactic projects I see today, could benefit from the spirit of Crowners project. Even the most conceptually rigorous of artists can benefit from a little bit of aesthetic pixy dust.

Sarah Crowner’s Acrobat continue at the Nicelle Beauchene Gallery (21 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) until October 23.

2 replies on “How Didactic Art Could Be Less Boring”

  1. How can abstraction be didactic? I think about activism for issues concerning race, religion and government when I think of didacticism—things people have clear views on that can be changed. Maybe you’re using an elastic definition of the word, taking poetic license, but I thought I’d inquire so you can clarify what you mean. Btw, being boring is so much cooler than being cool, in my opinion.  

  2. I think that this author means didactic in the sense that the paintings directly reference other painting/art/images in a way that is meant to somehow reveal something about the referenced image.  Abstraction can be a way to avoid direct reference, but these paintings seem to come from direct reference.  In that way they aren’t “pure” abstraction, but are more like pictures of other abstractions.  Sort of the way early Donald Baechler paintings weren’t based on Baechler’s own imagery, but instead were interpretations of drawings on bathroom walls, bar napkins, etc.  A major part of the work is about where the source of the imagery is, it is one of the main things you think about when seeing the painting.

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