Susan Cianciolo’s Spirit Guides

Natural State, 2020, Paint, magazine pages and collage on paper 45 × 61 in.

Review by Olivia Whittick

Susan Cianciolo has been looking inside herself, searching for the joy and humanity in the quotidian, long before a time when we were all at home, driven by stress and confusion to get crafty and spiritual. And the fruits of her work are collected here, in her decade-spanning survey, “Spirit Guides: Paintings 1990 – 2020,” at Bridget Donahue. With works that are experienced like diary entries or scrapbook pages, corkboard collections of memories and moments, Cianciolo offers sketches of everyday divinity, of small joys and moments of peaceful self-exploration. 

From her early fashion drawings, to her textile-based “spirit guides,” Cianicolo continues to present a form of sincerity and appreciation for hand-mades that she instantiated with her cult RUN label in the mid-90s, one that is being celebrated by a new generation of young fashion designers. And with reason—Cianciolo brings fun back to fashion, wresting it from the commodification and over-consumption with which it has been tainted. She takes what’s old and makes it new, turns away from marketability towards pure craft.

Documentation of her show offers a stark room, like an ascetic’s austere quarters, a lone cot centred in the space. But the works themselves do not eschew decoration, but celebrate fashion as Cianciolo’s adjoining devotion. Bright primary colours point to the influence of her frequent collaborator, her young daughter Lilac, while sewn-up scraps of fabric and look-book collages are reminiscent, fittingly, of a designer’s mood-boarding. Dress Mirror frame, 2017-2018, uses cardboard, tape, scrap fabric, and a perfectly spliced cotton dress to create a border for your reflection.

With her more traditional paintings, and their titles like Time Doesn’t Exist, 1995 and This Earth We Walk Together, 2019 Cianciolo’s works feel prophetic, or at least perfectly apt for this moment, the sort of truisms we are clinging to now, hot-potatoing back and forth over social media. They seem put together with whatever materials were on hand, bits of paper taped together, figures exquisitely-corpsed from paints and pastel and pencil. Remember this brown packing tape? I forgot about it, although it definitely still exists so commonly I don’t think to even see it. Here I notice how beautiful it is. Its tint feels bygone. Cianciolo’s work balances the emotion of practicality with the sweetness that drives the pursuit of ornament. Hers is the soul of a ruffle or a hand-embroidered detail. 

Cianciolo positions making in way that isn’t so much precious as it is respectful, honouring a very personal and unpretentious approach to assembling, one that is being exalted in the world at this very moment, as we return value to what we are able to make for ourselves. To imagine Cianciolo’s show up without any visitors, an empty room filled with her joyful works, her glamorous women in their paper poses, is somehow so fitting. The show becomes for the viewer exactly what the work was for the artist—a place to escape to in your mind. 

Thank You, 2020, Paint, tape and collage on paper 71 × 103 in.

Restlessness and Life Does Not Exist, 2019, Acrylic and collage on wood 20 1/2 × 15.6875 in.

Dress Mirror frame, 2017-2018 Mixed textile 72 × 24 in.

My Existence Exists in Myself, 2020, Cloth, thread, paint, tape and collage on paper 51 × 87 in.

Life is Temporary, 2020, Wood, cloth, safety pin, paper, collage 18 × 27 1/2 × 77 in.

Non Dynamic, 2020, Masking tape, paint and collage on paper 41 1/2 × 51 1/2 in.

Time Doesn’t Exist, 1995, Mixed Media on paper 10 works on paper, each: 11 × 8 1/2 in.

Time Doesn’t Exist, 1995, Mixed Media on paper 10 works on paper, each: 11 × 8 1/2 in.

Rhode Island Plant Society Fold Out, 1998, Ink, brown tape, collage on paper 10 1/4 × 29 3/4 in.

Guides, You are a Keeper, 2019, Water-based paint on canvas 16 × 20 × 3/4 in.

This Earth We Walk Together, 2019 Water-based paint and collage on paper 24 1/2 × 15 1/4 in.

Images:
Susan Cianciolo, “Spirit Guides: Paintings 1990 – 2020”, February 9 – March 29, 2020, Bridget Donahue, New York, photo by Gregory Carideo, copyright Susan Cianciolo, courtesy of the artist and Bridget Donahue, NYC