A Painting with a Purpose: Sarah Crowner and Primary Information at ICA

“This might be easier than we thought,” Paul says, pulling the curtain onto the long dowel. Sarah, who made the curtain, carefully adjusts the folds.

Off-white and flame red, lipstick pink and lime green and black, the curtain is twenty-two feet long and made of irregular linen panels. Sarah, who is a painter—and who thinks of the curtain as a kind of portable painting—colored the bright sections with fabric paint, then ironed them, then stitched the whole thing together on an industrial machine. “I had to make a giant pattern for it,” she says, “like one would make for a giant jacket.”
Miranda: Paul-Pulling-Up-Curtain

Miranda: Paul-Pulling-Up-Curtain

Up on a ladder, David finishes installing brackets over the windows. He and Paul lift the curtain onto the brackets and let it unfurl. Suddenly ICA‘s mezzanine space seems more orderly, the chairs and tables and library carrel given context, orientation. Sarah frowns at the three-inch strip of glass showing above the curtain. “Is that distracting?” she asks.

David and Paul try raising it up a little. It doesn’t quite reach the ground, now, but it’s definitely better. Finally, it’s perfect. “It looks like it was made for the space.” Sarah seems pleased.

Actually, Sarah made the curtain as a backdrop for a Spanish-language staging of Robert Ashley’s opera, Perfect Lives. Partly because the opera, now called Vidas Perfectas, was set in the desert between Mexico and the U.S., she brought ideas from Mexican Modernism to the work. She also found inspiration in the early twentieth century Polish artist Maria Jarema, who designed costumes in theatrical collaboration with Tadeusz Kantor.

Then a few months ago, James Hoff and Miriam Katzeff asked Sarah if they could use the curtain as a backdrop for a very different kind of presentation: their spring Excursus project at ICA. James and Miriam are Primary Information—a non-profit that (re)prints new and out-of-print artist books and writings. Their Excursus IV is an archival exploration of ICA’s 1975 Video Art show, with lots of books and pamphlets and letters and diagrams; they liked that the curtain would introduce color into this largely black-and-white project.
Miranda: video-art

Catalogue for the ICA exhibition “Video Art” (1975).

There was a practical consideration as well. Works from Video Art are being projected in one corner of the bright, open mezzanine, and the curtain helps dims the light. “It’s nice to think of a painting having a purpose,” Sarah says. Then she turns a critical eye to the creases in the fabric: “We’ll have to steam it.”

How does a painter of canvases come to curtains?

“I was thinking about duration in art,” Sarah explains. “In sitting in front of a painting for forty-five minutes instead of going into a gallery where you might look at something for maybe three.”

And then, she wondered, what happens when you put a painting behind a stage on which things are constantly happening? Does the painting still the action? Or, conversely, does the action make the painting move?

In Vidas Perfectas, the curtain’s white panels became screens onto which the text of the opera was projected. Here on ICA’s mezzanine, it will frame public programs and stand sentry to private chats and reading experiences, to casual browsing. I find myself wondering which of the scheduled programs it might particularly enjoy: the conversation about camouflage and mimicry perhaps? Or maybe it’s interested, as I am, in chapbooks.
Miranda: Coffee-and-conversation

Coffee and Conversation program in front of the curtain. Photo: Emily Wu

In past presentations, the curtain has been backlit or illuminated with stage gels. “Here,” Sarah tells me, “it’s beautiful, because it’s all natural light.” Almost as she speaks, the sun comes out from behind a cloudbank, casting pale streaks across the linen. The fabric brightens irregularly, the pinks glowing, the greens becoming as translucent as beach glass.

Primary Information will be ICA’s final Excursus project. Excursus, which invites artists, designers, publishers, and others to delve into ICA’s archive and use what they find as a starting point for an installation (and also an online residency) was started by Alex Klein when she came to ICA as Program Curator in 2011. The four Excursus projects she has organized—Reference Library, East of Borneo, Ooga Booga, and now Primary Information—have enlivened ICA’s physical space and enriched its intellectual compass. I urge you to experience it this spring while you have the chance. After that, the curtain is coming down.
Miranda: Perfect, no people

Miranda: Perfect, no people

Excursus IV: Primary Information is on view at ICA through June 16. Follow the project and learned about upcoming programs at the Excursus website.