How Susan Cianciolo Spun Art Out of Fashion


Before Susan Cianciolo began creating her noble, nuanced multimedia artworks, she was one of New York’s most beloved avant-garde fashion designers. Having graduated from Parsons in 1992, she came up alongside fellow experimentalists like Bernadette Corporation and Miguel Adrover a few years later. She tried being the designer-businesswoman for a while — producing her Run line from 1995 to 2001 — but the role didn’t suit her, didn’t accommodate the freedoms her hand and mind required to create the sum total of her visions. Where fashion typically traffics in seduction, Cianciolo’s clothes proffered enchantment instead, subtly spinning narrative threads regarding female bodies, the material world, and the conditions required for physical and metaphysical transformations.

“DIY” was the go-to description for her hands-on, collaged aesthetic, but that didn’t accurately capture the precision, the canny intuition, with which her garments were conceived and constructed. She repurposed pieces found at thrift stores, cutting them up and incorporating them into her designs. She embellished her collections with embroidery, crochet, and other bits of craft. In her clothes, a body wasn’t up for consumption or control; it was something to adorn, and thereby to contemplate. Cianciolo’s was a humbler, more spiritual couture. Seams out, her garments appeared vulnerable, ethereal, even as they protected a wearer — not like armor, impenetrable, but like a medicine pouch: assembled, talismanic, healing.

From wearable to habitable, the Brooklyn-based Cianciolo continues to center her art around the body, and what and how it means to be present, to be a presence. For her current exhibition, RUN PRAYER, RUN CAFÉ, RUN LIBRARY, she has created four muscular installations possessed of her signature raw elegance: two designated for the soul’s engagement and expression, one for nourishment, one for reading and study. Inside the gallery, the artist invites visitors to explore and use these spaces — entwining the natures of public and private — which offer in turn, and over time spent inside the work, reflections regarding how a self may be dispersed in the world.

The spaces of RUN PRAYER, RUN CAFÉ, and RUN LIBRARY (all 2016–2017) are each designated by light architectural structures, like drawings made in wood and metal, which frame and contain the assorted objects and ephemera they hold. Without walls, these rooms breathe, one flowing into the next, and Cianciolo has filled each of them with collections of things both found and made; here, a sense of placement is as strong as a sense of place. On the floor of RUN LIBRARY are boxes, some filled with papers, DVDs, magazines. In one: a cupping kit, for use in Chinese medicine; in others, Cianciolo has arranged homemade objects including Styrofoam peanuts painted periwinkle blue, tiny clay sculptures, and a small paper doll. A stool and a table stacked with books —among them, Hysteric Glamour: Terry Richardson, Early American Design Motifs, and Direct Experience of I-AM APAROKŞHĀNUBHŪTI — stand in the corner for those wanting to sit and browse. 

Cianciolo has always included her personal effects in her work, and though her art also stands as a record of her life, it never dissolves into the confessional. What other artists would guard as archival matter, she uses as material: whether letters or magazine tear sheets, or drawings and other musings by her nine-year-old daughter, Lilac Sky, who is occasionally referred to as her collaborator. Books sometimes serve as filing cabinets of a kind. In one titled History of Africa, Cianciolo has stored stacks of paperwork: correspondences from a colleague (“I applied for an apartment down the street from here today. Fingers crossed, it would start in July”), as well as a pink piece of notepaper on which Lilac has written: “Malia is not nice to me she dos not like me for evin being kind to her.” Books, whether we ourselves author them are not, are records of memories — of thoughts and information — so why shouldn’t they hold their keeper’s memories too? (A thought: To connect more deeply to objects like this allows one to disconnect from crude materiality. Another thought: Open yourself up wide enough to your audience, no one can see you. At least, not really).

Ring the bell inside RUN CAFÉ, and treats will be brought to you. (On the day I visited, chocolate-dipped macaroons and cups of tea were offered.) For Cianciolo, an artist must also be of service to her audience; art, at least in part, is a production of gratitude. (Cianciolo has also organized free performances and events that will run throughout the exhibition.) RUN PRAYER and Prayer Circle sit at opposite ends of the gallery from each other, bookending the show with two spaces built for faith. On the floor of RUN PRAYER (as on the floors of all the installations), Cianciolo has placed a tapestry hand-stitched together from odd cuts of different fabrics. One can sit and read the two prayers she’s provided or, of course, simply read one’s own. Although roomy enough for more than one person at a time, the setup encourages a certain solitude. (Sitting in the middle, one is encircled by plants, and more of her magical objects).

Prayer Circle is otherwise set up as though around a campfire, a hodgepodge of chairs (folding, lawn, office) placed next to bundles of wood logs and kindling. Instead of fire and smoke at its center, strings of yarn decorated with drawings and notes ascend to the ceiling. On the seat of each chair, Cianciolo has left other ephemera: a page announcing grocery store specials; other works by Lilac. This is the only space one can’t sit inside during the show — presumably because it’s communal, to be shared, occupied, by a group together rather than just by oneself. Asking, receiving, gathering: these too are high art forms, inspired, inspiring, and — as practiced by Cianciolo — restorative of the knowledge that the Greater What and Who outside ourselves is, ironically, what most powerfully sustains us within.

Bridget Donahue
99 Bowery, 2nd floor
Through December 3