Artists at Work: Susan Cianciolo


This summer, during group shows and ahead of fall exhibition openings, we’re visiting New York-based artists in their studios

Two years ago, Susan Cianciolo debuted her first solo show with Bridget Donahue gallery, a series of Fluxus-inspired “kits” titled, “If God COMes to visit You, HOW will you know? (the great tetrahedral kite)” and was included in MoMA PS1’s quinquennial litmus test of the New York art world, “Greater New York.” It was, in a way, a return for the artist and avant-garde fashion designer.

Cianciolo, who grew up in Rhode Island and attended Parsons in the early ’90s before working as an illustrator for Geoffrey Beene and joining Kim Gordon‘s streetwear line X-Girl, has always been a unique link between the worlds of art and fashion. She employs an interdisciplinary methodology in a variety of media—making films, considering food, crafting tapestries, and creating books; a variety of her designs are part of the collection at the Museum of FIT. She showed the inaugural collection of her 11-season RUN label in 1995 at Andrea Rosen Gallery, then on Prince Street, with many of the clothes created in sewing and knitting circles she hosted out of her downtown apartment. RUN Restaurant, in its first incarnation, debuted in 2001 at Alleged Gallery on a stretch of Washington Street in the yet-to-be-gentrified Meatpacking District, and turned the act of eating into an art event. Cianciolo designed the uniforms, arranged the tables, and manned the kitchen, offering a $10 prix fixe Japanese meal.

Lately, Cianciolo has modeled for young upstarts with a conceptual bent, such as Eckhaus Latta and Maryam Nassir Zadeh, and this past spring, she revived RUN Restaurant, this time in a much grander space—Untitled, the restaurant at the Whitney, as part of the museum’s Biennial programming. In September, she will unveil two concurrent solo exhibitions, the first, “RUN church, RUN Restaurant, RUN Store,” at Stuart Shave/Modern Art in London, and the second, “Susan Cianciolo: RUN PRAYER, RUN CAFÉ, RUN LIBRARY,” back at Bridget Donahue in New York.

Interview recently met with Cianciolo at her Fort Greene home for a studio visit, conducted over spiced tea and honey made by bees living on the roof of the Whitney Museum.

COLLEEN KELSEY: How are you developing these two shows? Do you feel that they are an outgrowth of the RUN Restaurant Untitled series at the Whitney Biennial?

SUSAN CIANCIOLO: Exactly a year ago last July, I was at Stuart Shave/Modern Art for a few days to do a site visit to start to draw the floorplans for the show that I would have a year later. I gave a talk at the ICA and screened a film I had just finished. But while I was there, [Whitney Biennial curator] Mia Locks called me and said, “Would you be in the Whitney Biennial? [Co-curator] Christopher [Lew] and I would like to recreate RUN Restaurant.” The first one was in 2001. Considering I had reinvented it through 2008 to 2010 as a mobile restaurant working with farms, she said, “We’d offer you an infrastructure, the Untitled restaurant, and you’d work with a very famous chef, Michael Anthony.” It was so shocking and exciting, but I had also already planned that I was going to introduce RUN Restaurant through Stuart’s gallery. I’m very stubborn when I make decisions about shows, and I’m very strict to stick with the plans. I knew in some ways it was perfect for my style that I would introduce this really grand RUN Restaurant, and I talked to Stuart about that, and then there would be this surrealist abstract version that I was already planning with him. My concept is, both shows are actually one show, and I’m cutting it down the middle. So Bridget has a version of that too. It’s this communication I play with within the shows, within pieces that repeat in different forms, and especially working with bodies in time, so how one speaks to the other. All of this may be one show in a sense. Locations are more objects for me. So it was perfect timing.

KELSEY: How do these two locations work together for what you are going to be showing?

CIANCIOLO: I was happy they were both open to the idea that I would build six life-size houses and they each get three of the houses. But really, those six work together. Stuart gets RUN Church, RUN Store, and RUN Restaurant, then Bridget gets RUN Café, RUN Prayer, and RUN Library. As I’ve been developing them, it’s all at exactly the same time. I want them to have exactly the same attention and intention. This is where I find I trust so much of fate, because we were going to open at Stuart’s exactly when the Whitney opened and then Bridget’s would follow. And then we moved it. But they committed to the concept, which furthered the excitement for me, the impact of parallel shows. Every day I’m in two places because I project energy into spaces and I’m visualizing, but it’s a good challenge for me.

RUN Library, I’ve been working on that for a year. It’s an all new series of handmade books that I’ve developed. And then I’ve pulled from my archives, from my own personal library, and that’s taking me a lot of time. RUN Café and RUN Restaurant are formations from the Whitney, but pushing it to a more surrealist line of how you sit down and have something to eat and drink. So, you’ll be in the performance if you decide to participate in that. RUN Store I’ve been developing all the pieces that are in that store for a long time. T-shirts, bodysuits, books. Whatever you would buy at a store. Abstract little sculpture items, shoes.

KELSEY: At what stage are you at of finalizing your vision for the concurrent shows?

CIANCIOLO: I’m in the place where in some sense I know the work is done, but then in the other side of my brain, it’s never done. So it’s a constant, “Well, should I never leave the studio?” But the biggest approach to my work is really in the installation. The making is 50 percent and then the install is where things really come alive. No one could install it. It has to be me. It’s this very interesting time, you know? But then in these last weeks, so much comes in that changes everything. I don’t know what that will be.

KELSEY: I want to talk a little bit about RUN Church, and as you just mentioned RUN Prayer Room, or is it just Prayer?

CIANCIOLO: Well, my first floor plans, I looked back a year ago and it said “RUN Prayer Room” and “RUN Tea House,” but I’ve decided it’s going to be RUN Prayer and RUN Café. I’m trying to simplify.

KELSEY: There’s this spiritual component to balance out a place of community, or nurturing, or nourishing. All of these arenas seem to be represented in each location you’ve created. How would you categorize the idea of community, or nourishing the self, in your practice?

CIANCIOLO: The last few shows, the titles have been direct quotes from gurus that I’m very inspired by, or coming from the Bible. One was from a guru that quoted the Bible. I don’t do that on purpose, it was just something that came to me, because I have hundreds of titles I have been working with over the last year. When it comes, it comes. There is a church in one country and there is a prayer room in the other. It’s my version of how I see those. The word “church” is obviously so controversial, and that’s probably why it’s important to me to use it. I mean, in all the work I do, I don’t know how it will be looked at or judged. It’s up to viewer to interpret. These little installations I’m doing outside are plants that I’m growing and tapestries; that’s what will be inside these rooms. It’s my definition of what that room is. Those are influenced from my 20 years of going to Japan, and all of the gardens. I would always ask, “Please explain Shintoism,” and they would say, “Well, it’s when the spirit of God is in trees and plants and flowers and nature.” That was one that really stuck with me a lot. Sometimes, I make the work and then I don’t fully understand it until maybe many years later. These pieces are like big repetitions and little bits of new parts are added. You know, RUN Store I created in 2001 and it was an installation for one day in New York in a storefront, and then one day in Paris at the Purple Institute.

KELSEY: Do you think much about what the visitor will take out of experiencing, let’s say, a visit to RUN Church?

CIANCIOLO: I feel if I do think about that too much I’ll destroy myself. I probably would just be frozen, because it takes so much inner determination to stay inside the work. As soon as I step out and think of what someone might think, or interpret, I will really fall so far off track.

KELSEY: We talk about these places, whether it’s a restaurant or a church, as umbrella terms for where people come together.

CIANCIOLO: That’s true. Being a child, I went to church so much. That built a basis for a kind of spirituality that now is very different to me. But it came from that. I can’t erase that, but I filled that house with different beliefs or different objects or different feelings or understandings. With RUN Restaurant, food is so important to me, so I chose the word “restaurant” to represent it. These are places that involve people and community, but it may just be the personal aspect that is drawing me in, more with memories. The work is obviously based on community, because in some of the installations, performances, I need humans to make them exist. But I’m a little bit leery of this word “community.” I’m not trying to be a promoter, like, “Community is so important.” It’s just the style of how I’m working. I work very much alone. Then there is a certain energy I’m looking for within how we pull it off together.

KELSEY: Will there be any performance components of the shows at Stuart’s or Bridget’s?

CIANCIOLO: Yeah, but it’s very abstract. I’m always playing with this line of question, “What is performance?” It is just so subtle, and there’s always a part where it’s functional, the performance, and it’s interactive, so that you coming to the show, you actually are a part of that performance. You can step as far away back as you want, or you can become very involved. These works’ phenomenon will be performative throughout the entire show, and it’s hard on the gallery and the staff because they have to commit, but at the actual opening for Bridget’s, her and I have already sat down and planned the opening performance. New York is where I’m rooted so I tend to feel I’m able to push some boundaries there. With Stuart’s there is this subtle performance. There are layers, and that’s why this time it’s not all just the physical work. It’s also writing and understanding how that is going to be pulled off. Both shows are mirrors, but they will both have very different parts. That’s what I like about the work: that you have to be there to experience it. If you miss it, you really miss it forever. I like that it’s for this fleeting moment of time that’s so precious. Even documentation can’t capture it, you know?