While children’s naive, unfettered marks have long inspired artists seeking to unlock subconscious potential, Susan Cianciolo’s recent exhibition at Bridget Donahue featured actual childhood production: the artist’s nine-year-old daughter, Lilac, served as collaborator. Glitter glue, cheery kid’s handwriting, and handprints on fabric lent an innocent charm to the show, which celebrated creativity in its most unrefined, indeterminate forms.
Three timber structures extended across the gallery, representing a prayer space, a café, and a library. The contents of the prayer space, displayed under wood beams installed in a kind of steeple formation, seemed to promote a hodge-podge new age spirituality rather than an established religion, their aesthetic catholic in the lowercase sense. At the back of this space, below windows overlooking the Bowery, sat a group of plants potted in vessels of varying sizes and hues. A collage taped to the floor featured, among other items, fabric scraps, a square of colorful tongue depressors glued together, and a white Styrofoam tray decorated with multicolored sequins. Along the sides, cardboard boxes contained painted rocks, wood totems, clay sculptures, and a variety of small, alluring objects. Altogether, the assortment created a playful and inviting atmosphere.
At the café, visitors could sit on white plastic stools at a pleasantly cluttered table. If you rang a bell, a gallery assistant brought a small snack—on the Sunday I went, it was tea in a tiny Dixie cup and a piece of an apricot pastry. The experience was lovely, but having gone to the show alone, I felt I’d missed out. If Cianciolo’s spaces invited reflection, they also seemed designed for communion and exchange.
Relics from the artist’s life added a strong biographical component to the show. Between 1995 and 2001, the Rhode Island–born, New York–based Cianciolo designed eleven collections for her clothing line, Run. Her recent projects suggest that her art is a natural outgrowth of the brand. During this year’s Whitney Biennial, she staged Run Restaurant Untitled—a pop-up dining experience (food, drink, music, and performance)—in the museum’s eatery. The exhibition at Bridget Donahue was named “Run Prayer, Run Café, Run Library.” Between the prayer room and café, a tapestry featuring her garment sketches hung on a wall, while a box in the library contained a book of her Run designs. Throughout the show, Cianciolo brought together fashion and art, performance and installation, past and present, building a creative utopia where visitors could eat, pray, read, and feel inspired enough to go on themselves to innovate, without fear of arbitrary boundaries—with the openness, indeed, of a child.
Cianciolo hinted at a New York of the past but wasn’t precious or maudlin about it. Instead, she wove memories into her work less as a glorification of an era than as a backstory to the narrative she’s now creating as an artist and mother. She welcomed viewers into meditative spaces that encouraged the enjoyment of the present, one mindful sip of tea or examination of a painted rock at a time. A piece of paper attached to the wall near the door read, THANK YOU FOR COMING / FROM WORKERS in the child’s handwriting. Two dashes and a curve formed a smiley face next to the words. It was a sweet final gesture that lingered with me as I headed back out to the busy Chinatown street.