Culture Victoria

Craft in Context - interview with Sarah crowEST

By Craft Victoria Posted Under Craft in Context interviews

Sarah crowEST works as visual artist crossing discipline boundaries of contemporary art, design, and craft oscillating between critical and commercial modes. Her work operates in the gaps between geometric abstraction, hand-crafted apparel and the expanded field of 'painting'.

As an exhibition maker, researcher and co-producer of objects, crowEST takes a responsive approach to the provocation of materials, attending to their haphazard agency. Recent works appear in a cycle of teetering movements between a (rigidly adhered to) painting format, stretched and hanging cloth, including ‘paintings’ which can be strapped onto the body. CrowEST lives and works in Melbourne and London and was selected as a Gertrude Contemporary Resident Artist for 2013-2015.

Red Counter Pain (1994), cotton, dyed, screen printed: quilted, 173 x 231cm, purchased with the assistance of the Ararat Social Committee 1995, Ararat Regional Art Gallery Collection, photography by Terence Bogue

What are the circumstances surrounding the acquisition of your pieces Red Counter Pain and Sampler by the Ararat Regional Art Gallery? Has the acquisition of these works raised other opportunities for your practice?

Sampler was chosen from a 2013 exhibition at Craft Victoria entitled Tumbleweed Methodology: a theory of the cycle of things and is one of my first forays back into using textile mediums after a number of years working with 3D construction techniques such as modelling and casting that materially conditioned the character the work. I can’t remember how Red Counter Pain came to be in the Ararat Regional Art Gallery collection. I do remember I first showed it at The JamFactory in Adelaide in an exhibition entitled Love, Sex and Death: fragments from a woman's secret history. That title just about sums up the turmoil of my émigré life as I hurtled, with my little daughter, from London to Sydney to Adelaide and back - buffeted by affairs of the heart! Indeed Red Counter Pain features my little girl and reflects the push and pull of trying to focus on making art, being a caring mother and lover.

What aspects of these pieces help inform your current visual arts based practice?

Techniques of screen-printing, sewing and painting have been re-introduced processes which formed a large part of those aforementioned textiles. Now, painter’s linen has emerged as an important material both conceptually and as a surface for intervention.

Sampler (2013), Belgian linen, found cloth, cotton thread, acrylic paint spray paint: machine stitched (edging), hand stitched embroidery techniques, 211 x 321 cm (main panel), purchased with funds from Ararat Rural City Council 2013, Ararat Regional Art Gallery Collection, photography by Andrew Curtis

When did your making focus shift from the more functional textiles created at the beginning of your career to the liberal and utilitarian constructions you make today and what progression pre-empted this evolution?

Around 2004 I ceased to make 2D screen-printed, textile works and began to study sculpture, spatial practice, photography and video and became immersed in broad-based contemporary art practice. Practicality and external commissions requiring 2D solutions pre-empted my recent return to working with cloth. Its language and connotations feel right for me perhaps based on my early experience and education in fashion and textile design. After hitching my practice to academia for a number of years (largely to support full-time art activity) and writing a 50,000 word PhD dissertation, a yearning to work with my hands has reasserted itself (anything digital presents a problem for me, I loathe spending hours on the computer which seems to be a growing and necessary part of being a ‘professional’ artist.) However, now what might once have been read as a craft and design based practice is visibly permeated by a vigorous mistrust of the genres, categories and conventions that art itself forms of art or indeed craft itself forms of craft, fashion of fashion and so on.

As part of your current visual arts based practice you explore the medium of textiles to represent aspects of formalism and geometric abstraction. What is it about the medium and processes you use that helps to convey your intentions?

The warp and the weft. Sophie Taeuber-Arp is in the mix too and I’ve been motivated by a series of her little-known, gouaches of abstracted, architectural plans to reduce my mark-making to horizontal and vertical lines and shapes. I’m compelled to reduce the layered complexity of my work for a while. It always becomes too much and too many things and then impossible to articulate.

Running Order (2015), installation view Gertrude Contemporary 2015, Belgian linen, canvas, acrylic paint, textile ink, photography by Christo Crocker

Are there any particular local public collections or specific practitioners which have influenced your practice over your years as a maker?

No. I could bang on here about a Robert Ryman show I saw at the Whitechapel in 1977 (local to me then!) and I often do as it has had an enduring influence on my thinking. This is because my wide-ranging and greedy embrace of materials and processes, ideas, habitats, methods of survival and relationships seem diametrically opposed to Ryman’s measured and contained approach to art, work and life. I aspire (but flail) to some kind of radical simplicity when it comes to ‘stuff’. Ryman is still a touchstone somehow in many convoluted ways. Let’s cast aside this ‘genius’ though and plump for Taeuber-Arp as my most profound influence even though it is early days. The harmonious paintings featured heavily in the most recent monographs on her work are not typical of what has drawn me in but rather her work as an architect and designer.

When was the last time you visited a public collection for research purposes and what was your intention with the visit?

I draw a blank here. However, looking ahead, I plan to look at Taeuber-Arp’s Vertical and Horizontal Composition in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia. I am also going to travel to Clamart, France to see the house and studio Taeuber-Arp designed for herself and husband Jean. This marvellous looking building is home to a collection of works in the care of Fondation Arp (privileging, I fear, the oeuvre of Jean Arp over Taeuber’s judging by my inability to tap into the information I’m seeking). Here I intend to set my eyes on some particularly compelling, untitled (perhaps) gouaches and find out what they are beyond loose (and rejected?) sketches for the Café Aubette. I’m not convinced by the vague way these works have been dismissed in the literature around her work that there is not something quite specific in her intent.

Centre Front (2015), textile ink on Belgian linen, 165 x 111 cm, photography by Christo Crocker

What is it about textiles in particular that holds your fascination and continues to inform your current conceptual practice?

The language of textiles has absorbed me since childhood. My mother was a ‘domestic science’ teacher – needlework and cookery! I have to mention here a memory of an underside connected to my desire to learn woodwork from my highly-skilled Grandad. I was about 7 and my brother perhaps 9. I remember, and can still feel a sinking feeling, a body consuming darkness, an inexplicable heaviness in the pit of my stomach as I watched my brother go off with Grandad to the workshop to make a little boat. No one thought to ask me (the girl) and looking back I see I just quietly swallowed my rage and jealousy. I went with my Mum and my Grandma to look at fabrics and their possibilities… sublimation and displacement… maybe.


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