SUSAN CIANCIOLO if God COMes to visit You, HOW will you know? (the great tetrahedral kite)by Liz Hirsch
Bridget Donahue | May 17 – July 5, 2015
“Think about your grandmother differently,” the artist Robert Kushner said to me last summer, reflecting on the years he spent during the mid-1970s cutting, sewing, and crocheting handmade garments—often out of scavenged and second-hand clothes—then staging them as costumes for live performances and runway shows in downtown New York studio lofts and galleries like Paula Cooper and the Kitchen. Kushner was referring, above, to the questions and challenges he posed of himself and of culture more broadly, at that moment and after, regarding assumptions about gender propriety and the valuation of labor that is culturally ascribed to the domestic sphere rather than to art proper.
Kushner, like many male artists of his own and generations since, speaks about how the maternal space of his youth, and his exposure to skills like crocheting, were crucial to his development as an artist. Wholesale reconsideration of gendered space is a well-understood legacy of feminist experimentation of the 1960s and ’70s, thanks to pioneers like Miriam Schapiro. Embedded within this critique is a prying at the perennial tension surrounding the designation of the category of craft. While Mike Kelley took this up in the 1980s, and artists such as Sheila Pepe, Sheila Hicks, and Josh Faught have plotted other trajectories of textile in the expanded field, Susan Cianciolo’s work reopens these questions surrounding the matriarch, the amateur, artisanship, and collectivity in the context of the accelerated speed of contemporary cultural production. She does so in a way that crosses these more ambiguous themes with the notion of styling, a mode akin to K8 Hardy’s ludic testing of the “outfit.” Her embrace of craft is as sincere as it is totally idiosyncratic, that is to say, punk. As is customary in punk, post-punk, or any subculture for that matter, she trades in the minutiae of the scene, but also in that most basic unit of the social structure: the family. It literally gets that tight: fragments of dresses embroidered by Cianciolo’s grandmother appear alongside props and toys constructed by her seven-year-old daughter, Lilac Sky, which in turn brush against patterns by Mike Mills, quilts by Coulter Fussell, and photos by Rita Ackermann, Mark Borthwick, Anders Erdström, and many others.
Boxes of different shapes and sizes form the centerpiece of Cianciolo’s exhibition at Bridget Donahue. Situated in three neat rows down the central gallery floor, the boxes form aisles, so that you, the viewer, can wander the length as if you were a runway model. Each of these boxes (“kits,” as Cianciolo calls them) is placed upon a kind of tapestry: folded, quilted mats, or paper collages, in one instance a knit piece by the designer Zoe Latta with embroidery by Cianciolo. In this “swap meet” meets Duchamp’s “Box in a Valise,”each package is its own story: variously decorated, intentionally or perhaps unconsciously, to match the contents. There are vast quantities of material here, accumulated over the span of about 20 years, largely relics of the artist’s New York-based fashion label RUN, which produced 12 seasons of looks between 1995 and 2001. RUN developed alongside American Manufacturing, United Bamboo, and other home-grown labels representative of downtown New York’s DIY culture throughout the ’90s, what the collective Bernadette Corporation has called: “THE EMPTY WIDE SPACE trend, a place we can all disappear to, instead of being anti-everything and writing the new manifesto, or instead of being pro-everything and buying the latest CD.”
RUN saw considerable success with fashion and art audiences. In 1999, Cianciolo’s inclusion in an exhibition staged by Creative Time in the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage prompted critic Roberta Smith to cite her work as reaching a “funky, slacker kind of sublime.” The fashion line succeeded commercially until pressures from the industry deterred Cianciolo from growing her production model—which consisted exclusively of handmade garments, already outsourced in a sense, in that they were collectively produced by friends, family, and students in a sewing-circle-type operation—any further.
The kits are densely packed with personal material and references. Apart from “The Source Box Kit” (2015)—the contents of which are suspended from the ceiling in a delightful mobile, a “performance of objects in space,” to quote her sketches, a leather briefcase (“Briefcase Kit,” 1995–2015) is one of the few containers laying open for everyone to see inside. Inside are stacks of Polaroids, books, drawings, a plastic baggie of torn brown paper, and, on top of a cornflower blue folder, a hot pink post-it note that reads “Love Life” scrawled in red pen. Of course, “Love Life” is a past side project of RUN Collection, but how would you know? It might just as well be a taunt, a gesture towards the secrets that rankle a personal history, that other archive of the creative professional. Legibility becomes a red herring here, as only the most discerning of insiders will get the circuitous references to the many previous lives of Cianciolo’s materials. “The underground is now up in the Cloud,” remarked the artist Douglas Coupland recently, regarding the increasing placelessness of bohemia. This definitively analog show seems to underscore this point, existing as an unplugged iteration of a very plugged-in practice. “Her project is so inclusive that it begins to resemble a cult,” wrote Bernadette Van-Huy of Cianciolo in the first issue of Bernadette Corporation’s three-issue fashion magazine Made in USA.
if God COMes to visit You, is the first exhibition and is ambitious yet highly selective—not only of Cianciolo’s garments, drawings, performances, and videos, but also her vast archive of zines, research notebooks, backstage photos, animation drawings, screenplays, and related documentation. The show offers an opportunity to connect mentally and viscerally not only with the memory of a downtown scene that ghosts our present, but of a semi-fantastic brand of communalism that may or may not exist depending on who you ask. Curator Alex Fleming’s careful combing of the archives and intriguing presentation of documents in the office gallery extends also to a display of costumes in the very front of the space, designed by Cianciolo for Mark von Schlegell and Michael Krebber’s 2012 Jack Smith-inspired adaptation of Hamlet.
The exhibition’s subtitle, the great tetrahedral kite has theoretical mileage. Alexander Graham Bell’s design for a multi-celled box kite represented, in the late 19th century, a step toward human flight. Indeed the theme of taking flight—of folk religiosity, of utopian aspirations, and perhaps a brand of escapism, is subtly, but persistently, everywhere here. The perpetually packed suitcase, the symbol of a nomadic existence, reminds me of that part in Joan Didion’s “The White Album,” when she describes the packing list she kept taped inside her closet door in Hollywood while working as a journalist, to help her quickly pull together versatile items like: “pullover sweater,” “skirt,” “shoes,” “bourbon,” “mohair throw,” and “typewriter.” Conscious anonymity in the selection enabled Didion to “pass on either side of the culture.” By contrast, Cianciolo’s kits are atypical and distinctive, but the notion of mobility, and packaging the mobile self, connects them both to the question of found and chosen community, real or imagined, past and present.
This exhibition is the second to appear at Bridget Donahue’s new space on the Bowery, following a monographic survey of the artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson, another heretofore overlooked artist pioneering in extreme multimediality. Intriguingly the two seem to have nothing and everything in common, a signal that the program here will be very definitely one to keep watching.