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Susan Cianciolo’s Radical Vision Transcends Art and Clothing

Perfect Number Mag - August 2019

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The artist has willfully blurred the supposed distinctions between art, craft, and fashion throughout her career.

Approaching South London Gallery, on the occasion of visiting Susan Cianciolo’s current exhibition GOD LIFE: Modern House on Land Outside Game Table, I initially spot a group of mannequins gazing through the large windows that face onto Peckham Road. The mise-en-scène emulates the spatial architecture of a boutique shopfront, particularly appropriate for an artist who has wilfully blurred the supposed distinctions between art, craft, and fashion throughout her career.

The mannequin’s bodies—painted grey and white—have been designed with an air of cool nonchalance: arms crossed, hands on hips, legs staggered, toes pointed. Gestural painterly strokes and washes of color indicate sweeping crops of hair, cheekbones, red lips, brows, and eyes. Two are missing arms and a small collection of broken disembodied limbs have been lined up at their feet. Reading the gallery notes reveals the provenance of their distinctive appearance: salvaged in the late 1990s by Cianciolo from Ralph Pucci’s workshop, the designer renowned for artfully innovating the mannequin form so it could embody the personality and flair of a live model. Arranged on four low wooden platforms, the mannequins are dressed in garments selected from various archival collections of Cianciolo’s RUN fashion label.

One mannequin in Platform 3, for example, pairs a white cotton chef uniform shirt with a skirt made from a terry cloth towel, while the other wears a suit-like textile dress held together with safety pins over a red and black mesh lycra swimsuit. The items are worn, a little grubby and stained, bearing the traces of their material history. During the lifespan of RUN—which operated between 1995-2001—Cianciolo also expanded to accessories and homewares, indicated by the inclusion of bespoke objects, including the hand-blown glass perfume bottle and textiles blending pieces from different collections, woolen blends, and vintage Japanese obi. The installation is akin to this patchwork: it reads as both an artwork and an archive, with Cianciolo reconfiguring, reusing, and restaging her own ephemera in order to create new work.

The practice of reuse was key to the RUN collections. Each of the eleven collections was made from found or recycled textiles, often sourced from thrift stores and then reconstructed and sewn together with additional layers. There was no material hierarchy, some garments made use of metal or paper. The process of making—the craft—was always deliberately noticeable: seams left visible, ends cut roughly, threads hanging loose, fabrics precariously held together with snap buttons, hand-dyed with bleach or Japanese shibori techniques, embroidery and crochet appliqués, occasionally tied with string or adorned with trailing ribbons.

In resistance to rising commodification and factory production, Cianciolo produced each collection by hand in collaboration with a makeshift community known as the “sewing circle,” comprised of various artists, friends, and relatives. Each garment, therefore, bore the improvisations and decisions of multiple authors—psychic threads became entangled with the stitched ones—evoking the power of collective action and, perhaps inadvertently, alluding to the historical tradition of women’s handicraft and domestic labor practices.

Cianciolo’s lo-fi presentations were hosted by galleries in New York, Paris, and Tokyo, in addition to utilizing less conventional spaces: a tea salon, a parking garage, a disused furniture shopfront, an amphitheater. Members of the sewing circle would often model the collection and help organize the shows—many of them now custodians of the archive—further dissolving traditional consumer-led displays in favor of creating something fluid and organic, more comparable to the flamboyant and experimental costume parties hosted at the Bauhaus in the 1930s.

Cianciolo has said that she is a costume maker rather than a clothing designer. As a noun, the word “clothes” simply means items of clothing, while “costume” relates more widely to material culture, signifying a style of dress that might be characteristic of a place or period. Through the lens of costume design, the body becomes malleable, a fleshy vessel with semiotic potential, to be adorned, defined, protected, enhanced.

In 1927, at a conference at the Sorbonne in Paris, Sonia Delaunay delivered a lecture titled The Influence of Painting on the Art of Clothes. “After the destructive period—the liberation from academic shackles—fashion, as it is now, clearly influenced by painting, must become constructive,” she expressed. “Construction, the cut of a dress, is to be conceived at the same time as its decoration.” Delaunay’s holistic vision and her poetic engagement with the form and architecture of the body feel aligned with Cianciolo’s individual approach to making.

In addition to quickly gaining a cult following, Cianciolo’s collections achieved commercial success: featured in Vogue and stocked by the luxury department store Barneys. As an interesting comparison, three decades prior in 1968—an earlier iteration of the hallowed downtown New York scene—Yayoi Kusama established the Kusama Fashion Company. Dresses and textiles all decorated with her trademark polka dots were sold in four hundred boutiques and department stores across the United States, with Bloomingdales even setting up a “Kusama Corner.” Her most iconic pieces were designed with holes cut in them to reveal either the breasts, the crotch, or the buttocks. In 1969, Kusama opened her own boutique, where she hosted impromptu fashion shows more closely related to her body art and live performances. The design of garments became key to certain works. For one happening, a dress made from Soviet and American flags was able to accommodate thirty people, while the ‘Orgy’ wedding dress (designed for a couple to share) was worn by the performers in Homosexual Wedding (1968). “Clothes ought to bring people together, not separate them,” she wrote in response.

After Cianciolo closed RUN in 2001, she began making assemblages in the guise of Fluxus boxes, inspired by her studies of the experimental movement, prominent in the 1960s and 70s. Fluxus artists would often collect a series of found objects and ephemeral materials, assembling them in boxes, suitcases, and containers, in order to create juxtaposed narratives that could be mailed to one another, handled and reassembled. Cianciolo’s idiosyncratic boxes are now known as Kits, twelve of which are shown in the upper galleries. Their intimate scale—ordered on the floor in three neat rows—is well suited to the domestic feel of the exhibition space.

A converted Victorian Fire Station, this part of the building would have housed the firemen and their families. Emphatically hand-made and tactile, the Kits—which vary from a Notebooks Kit (2016), Pattern Do It Yourself Kit (1996-2016), The Cooking Kit (2016), and Being a Nurse Kit (2015)—are comprised of intricate constellations of letters, photographs, notes, posters, fabric off-cuts, book covers, labels, and sketches, either filling the boxes or taped to their sides, with quilts, cloth tapestries, and vintage textiles laid underneath. The contribution of Cianciolo’s daughter, Lilac Sky, is visible too, through her handwritten notes and drawings, and the use of glitter and popsicle sticks. The infusing of an everyday object with artistic or cerebral resonance has parallels with the concept of talismans, with the Kits often being compared to devotional shrines.

Over the past year, developed closely with Lilac, Cianciolo has worked on a series of Games that build the intention of the Kits: as objects to be unpacked and interacted with. Installed in the room opposite, either on the floor or making use of tables and chairs, school desks, and pallet crates, the Games are composed using art materials common to child’s play: repurposed egg boxes, Styrofoam cups, plastic and foil trays, in addition to pipe cleaners, paper cranes, sequins, pom poms, cardboard, tape, glue, feathers, marker pens, crayons, paper, and tape.

On the exhibition’s opening night, the games were played with and activated by a group of Cianciolo’s collaborators—part of a performance titled Scene 10 – The Celebration and the Games—while dressed in hand-made costumes and crafted jewelry, which included waterproof ponchos, draped apron-like garments, and a hooded sweatshirt with “REFUGEES ARE WELCOME” printed in block capitals. Lilac’s use of the spiritual phrase, to be “in the world, not of it,” can also be said to encapsulate her mother’s improvisational and evolving practice, led by the values of community and care, and demonstrating that working within an economy of means can often lead to the most expansive visions.

Susan Cianciolo: God Life: Modern House on Land Outside Game Table runs at South London Gallery through September 1.

Article by Philomena Epps