The artist Susan Cianciolo is often inspired to make work by what she describes as visiting spirits. In moments of emotional distress, or after days of strictly disciplined meditation, these otherworldly apparitions appear to her as glowing vermilion orbs, towering humanoids and insects that bolt across the ceiling, all of which she depicts in colourful drawings, paintings and collages. “I don’t know when or how, but at some point I started to physically see things, as real as you are right in front of me,” she says, crouching over a stack of vividly painted canvases that lean against the wall in the narrow hallway of her studio, which occupies the first of two floors she rents in a Fort Greene, Brooklyn, townhouse — the Rhode Island-born Cianciolo lives upstairs with her 11-year-old daughter, Lilac. One of the works in the stack is a self-portrait created last summer during a residency hosted by the Milan gallery Martina Simeti that shows the artist reclining with flushed cheeks, her face clouded by a rosy blot of pink watercolour, and surrounded by floating gemlike cells rendered in vibrant azure blue. “I was seeing all these bugs, so I started studying bugs incessantly and learning all their names in Italian,” she says. “This is how my work goes. I just go on these paths that I don’t even understand.”
Cianciolo’s collages often incorporate objects with personal associations. In this work, a photograph from a trip she took to Japan sits alongside a fashion advertisement featuring a longtime friend.
The sunny front room of Cianciolo’s studio is sparsely decorated — there’s a hand-painted dresser, a cot covered in patchwork fabric, a low wooden stool bearing a few potted plants, a small boombox, a dress form — but nearly every surface is covered with figurative sketches on paper, old screenplays and multimedia tapestries of varying shapes, sewn and duct-taped haphazardly together. “You can step on that,” she says, referring to a sprawling rectangular textile and painted paper piece that blankets much of the floor, a quilt of fleece squares that are stitched together with light-handed watercolours of plants and women in dresses; Alex, the family’s orange cat, is already sitting on top. Later in the week, many of these works will be moved to New York’s Bridget Donahue gallery, where a survey of Cianciolo’s paintings from the past three decades will open on Feb. 9. The artist admits to feeling “a little bit nervous.” At 50, she has mostly shown performance-activated installations, textile-laden collages, and cardboard kits filled with personal objects (a Popsicle-stick sculpture, a page from Cianciolo’s diary); this is the first show dedicated to her paintings and works on paper. In addition to her abstract, textural renderings of her “spirit guides,” there will be delicate fashion illustrations she made early in her career (she got her start drawing for the women’s wear designer Geoffrey Beene in the ’90s).
Despite her varied pursuits, Cianciolo is perhaps best known for her now-mythic, anti-establishment clothing line RUN, for which she created 11 collections from 1995 to 2001. Before upcycling or sustainability entered the cultural lexicon, in an era when fashion was ruled by minimalism and corporate mass production, she made the case for craft as couture, hand-making raw, one-off garments using found, recycled or altered textiles. Her process was communal; she formed a ragtag atelier of family members and other collaborators who worked in sewing circles, so that each frayed midi-dress or patchwork jacket was a product of collective intuition, adorned with layers of precious detailing and stitches by many hands. Cianciolo presented the collections at performative runway shows in galleries (or, in one instance, a Chelsea parking garage) and often enlisted friends and their children as models.
A painted work that features a drawing by Cianciolo’s daughter, Lilac.
Cianciolo’s fashion illustrations and costume studies will be shown alongside mixed-media tapestries at her exhibition with Bridget Donahue gallery.
Cianciolo’s brand existed squarely outside the mainstream fashion industry, and in 2001, at the moment it began to feel marketable, she left it entirely, shifting her focus to her art practice, which had been blooming quietly in the background. RUN expanded into an umbrella concept that covered a range of creative projects. There was RUN Home, a line of housewares created in collaboration with a collective of artists (woven pillows from the fashion designer Julio Espada, textiles by Zoe Latta of the clothing brand Eckhaus Latta) that debuted in 2014, and RUN Money, an alternative currency that could be used to purchase items from Cianciolo’s RUN 11 presentations in temporary stores in New York and Paris in 2000. In 2017, for the Whitney Biennial, she staged the second iteration of RUN Restaurant, a three-day performance piece in which visitors enjoyed a five-course vegetarian meal served by wait staff clad in Cianciolo-designed uniforms.
Cianciolo, who teaches in the fashion department at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, mostly resists the urge to continue creating clothing; despite her proud outsider status as a fashion designer, even she wasn’t immune to the pressures of the industry. But she imbues her collages and wall hangings with the same tenderness she once afforded her textile handiwork, often incorporating deeply personal objects and photographs. “This is a combination of very old and new,” she says, pointing to a square collage hanging in her studio that juxtaposes a landscape scene painted on paper by her mother with Lilac’s Mandarin class homework: rows of fruits drawn beside their corresponding Chinese characters. For now, painting is what Cianciolo connects with most intuitively; it is, she writes in the release for her show at Bridget Donahue, an “opportunity for divine encounter.” She answered T’s artist’s questionnaire while sitting at a low, wooden table, presiding over a pot of green tea and a bowl of tangerines.
“I’m trying to figure out if I’m going to finish this with sewing or with glue,” Cianciolo says, as she works to complete a large-scale piece. “I might have to ask for help on this one.”
What is your day like? How much do you sleep, and what’s your work schedule?
I generally don’t sleep a lot. I try to get up at 5 so I can meditate before I bring Lilac to the bus at 7, and then I work until she comes home from school. But then I usually just keep working anyway. The days are filled. They’re very busy.
How many hours of creative work do you think you do in a day?
It’s every minute I’m not doing any other mundane task or outside job. But if Lilac goes to her aunt and uncle’s, then I’ll just continue around the clock to make up for hours spent in mom world. It’s like magic, though, how it balances out. Somehow, I’m able to produce in a fluid sort of way.
What’s the first piece of art you ever made?
Some aluminium belts I made for my senior collection when I was studying fashion at Parsons. My closest friend, Aaron Lown — we would sneak into the industrial design room at night and he showed me how to cut these shapes based on what I’d drawn. You weren’t allowed to cross disciplines, so it was a big risk for me.
What’s the worst studio you ever had?
Oh, there are so many. There was a space I had on Canal Street from 1995 until 2001. It was very rough living there. I wondered if the whole building was going to fall down on us. But even though it didn’t have heat, and there were rats running around, there was still just a beauty to the space.
Cianciolo’s studio is sparsely furnished, but her and Lilac’s artworks cover the walls and floor.
What’s the first work you ever sold? For how much?
I remember a woman, Joelle Chariau, who was French and had a gallery in Munich. She would come — and this was in the early ’90s when I was a fashion illustrator — and just take piles and piles of my drawings. I remember she handed me $1,500 in cash and just said, “Keep making them.”
When you start a new piece, where do you begin?
I begin with the drawings. But there’s a tapestry upstairs I’m working on, and when I work on one of those, it is very random. I start it, and go back, go back. I take it all apart, then I put it all back together.
How do you know when you’re done?
It’s a feeling. Or it just has to go to the show.
How many assistants do you have?
Zero. I’ve injured my hand. I broke it last year. And I’m trying to figure out how much sewing I can possibly do. This morning, I was reading about a singer whose voice, at some point, went out. Maybe there’s only so much you can push certain parts of the body that heavily. Like an athlete.
Have you assisted other artists before?
Yes, John Derian, who makes decoupage. I would work part time for $7 an hour, and John would make these incredible lunches for us in his apartment. Now I see his work in billions of stores, but that homemade lunch, that was the best part.
What music do you play when you’re making art?
I listen to CDs from an ashram that Lilac and I have gone to upstate for the last 11 years. And if it’s not that, I listen to lectures. The teacher Ram Dass just passed away and I’ve always listened to his lectures. And this guru named Mooji. He’s originally from Jamaica and now lives in Portugal. I listen to his talks. If it’s not one of those, it’s just silence.
When did you first feel comfortable saying you’re a professional artist?
I still don’t feel comfortable. It’s something I’ve been struggling with — just what am I doing? Should I go back to fashion? Ideas for clothes keep coming to me, and I almost feel like they’re haunting me. I’m like: “Go away. I’m not making you anymore.” But then, they’re chasing me down the street and they’re like: “Make me. Make me.”
And where does it all fit in and what does it all mean? Our whole world is temporary and nothing means anything, least of all objects. I said that to Erin, a director at Bridget Donahue: Do we really need to make any more art? Just like we don’t need to make any more clothes.
A painting in which Cianciolo depicts her visions of robotic and insect-like creatures. “This was how they looked standing next to me — large,” she says.
Is there a meal you eat on repeat when you’re working?
Anything that doesn’t make me tired. If I do sit down for lunch, it will tend to be kale or some kind of sautéed vegetable with natto or tofu. If I’m not sitting down, I have fruit and — I’m embarrassed to say — some kind of protein bar. I found this writing Lilac did at school that said, “My mom eats a lot of protein bars.” Like, oh, she’s noticed.
Are you bingeing on any shows right now?
Yes, and I never have a show to watch, but I am so in love with “Schitt’s Creek.” I can’t help it. It’s just so good. I can’t wait to see what the mother’s wearing every time. Maybe I’m relating to her character.
How often do you talk to other artists?
It’s on and off. But when it does happen, it’s this very enriching, enlightening experience. You realise you’re all the same.
What do you do when you’re procrastinating?
I do the dishes and the laundry, I cook and I clean my daughter’s room. I make muffins or soup.
What do you usually wear when you work?
I wear a lot of Eckhaus Latta. And a T-shirt by my friend Maryam Nassir Zadeh.
If you have windows, what do they look out on?
It’s just a very simple Brooklyn view, which I think is really soothing: old architecture and some trees.
What’s your worst habit?
Being on my phone too much. I actually got rid of my smartphone. I wanted to feel what it was like to have the withdrawal and just be completely stranded.
What embarrasses you?
Probably very personal things. I’m definitely very private. With interviews, I never know if I’m supposed to make anything up or just be honest.
Do you exercise?
Yes. Swimming, yoga, walking.
What are you reading?
A book about Atlantis by Samuel Sagan.
What’s your favorite artwork by someone else?
Rita Ackermann has been my favourite artist for so, so long. I still cry when I see her work. I really connect with painters the most.
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