Daniel Giordano’s sculpture: Memory fueled, magically sprouting

Mass MoCA: Installation view of Daniel Giordano, “Love from Vicki Island,” 2023, at MASS MoCA. Photo by Ernesto Eisner, courtesy of the artist.

Contributed by Kari Adelaide Razdow / Daniel Giordano’s sculptures, some of them currently on view at MassMoCA and Visitor Center in Newburgh, NY, it is possible to decipher a deeply personal language ensconced in forms and symbols. His works defy easy classification while honoring memories that inhabit his industrially tinged studio in Newburgh, NY, once his family’s clothing factory. His freewheeling use of materials and evocative titles suggest a comprehensive embrace of sculpture as a repository of humor, narrative, and poetics, as well as a means of integration and rupture alike. There is a logic underpinning the wild combinations and ambiguous forms in his work. It resonates with echoes from the past and suggestions of the future, like a postcard from someone we have not yet met. 

Kari Adelaide Razdow:  Can you tell us more about your studio in Newburgh, Vicki Island, and how place, including the Hudson River, has informed your work?

Daniel Giordano: Vicki Island is a three-story factory complex located in the city of Newburgh that is named after my Aunt Vicki. The Vicki Clothing Company, which my grandfather, Frank, started in the 1940s, manufactured women’s long coats for about five decades. It was my playground growing up and has become my atelier. Vicki Island is my sanctuary and is a place unlike any other.

The enterprise switched hands to my father, Tony, in the 1970s. The top floor was the cutting room where the fabric was cut from paper patterns, the coats were assembled and stitched by the seamstresses on the second floor, and on the ground floor, the pressing and finishing was done before the coats were shipped out. The business carried on until it could not compete with offshore manufacturing and my father had no choice but to lay off all eighty of its workers in the mid-1990s.

I have fond childhood memories of being sandwiched between a large pile of coats and the roof of my father’s Ford Bronco for smaller deliveries to the garment district in New York City. After the handoff, we would celebrate with a huge meal at Carmine’s and then pastries from Veniero’s.

Once the factory closed, my father started a marine canvas and upholstery business, bending balletic metal arcs that were outfitted with custom canvas stretched to form perfect awnings for the motorboats on the Hudson River. Advanced Custom Canvas was regarded highly and ran until the 2008 recession.

Since 2013, I have taken full advantage of the factory’s idleness and the inspiration it holds. The Penthouse as I refer to it, or the third floor of the factory, is a time capsule and storage unit for all the industry left behind, containing sewing machines, cutting machines, press machines, other equipment, tools, bolts of fabric, and plenty of dust. I frolic about the factory, working on any number of sculptures like Edward Scissorhands manicuring a bush or styling someone’s hair while reciting my many mantras to myself: “Vicki is my faith and I must stay loyally devoted to her. I am determined to keep Vicki alive. Vicki’s work is never done. Do I have it in me to be Vicki? What would Vicki do? Vicki is a state of mind. Vicki is a way of life. Hands to work, hearts to Vicki. For Vicki!”

My work embodies my Newburgh: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The economic bleakness that now resides. There is so much rich indigenous, colonial, revolutionary, architectural, and industrial history here. While walking the streets, I am often reminded of the brutal carnage and destruction of both people and the environment. I make my work in the wake of what the Hudson River Painters, America’s first authentic art movement, feared most: the growth of industry encroaching on the earth’s bounty. They stylistically erased evidence of the forthcoming industry from their idyllic depictions of the landscape so that it appeared wild, untouched.

The rolling mountains of the river valley creates an awe-inspiring scenic backdrop to the toxic horrific realities. I aim to evoke what I refer to as the “fucked-up-itudes,” and to capture the essence of the complex place I call home.

Mass MoCA: Installation view of Daniel Giordano, “Love from Vicki Island,” 2023, at MASS MoCA. Photo by Ernesto Eisner, courtesy of the artist.

KAR: The lists of materials in your sculptures tend to be colossal, including Tang drink mix, tennis racquet strings, butterfly wings, artificial eyes, soot, thread spools, and hair. They bring to mind Song of the Witches: Double, Double Toil and Trouble, in Macbeth, but perhaps for the choreography of invention of adding more ingredients until “the charm is firm and good,” as opposed to the sorcery of it all. Can you tell us more about the theater or stagecraft of your process of concocting and considering what materials to include in your sculptures?

DG: I want to push materials to the point where they become new to the eye and render the individual components unrecognizable, causing one to be suspended in the magical. The sculptures are entities that are from another realm yet embody everything I know. The work feels complete when they encapsulate my full range of emotions and possess a commanding presence. I want them to feel like they were not made by human hands, but rather naturally occurring curiosities dredged from the depths of the Hudson River. 

Jasper Johns’s notion of taking an object, doing something to it and then doing something else to it is a procedure that I push far beyond its logical conclusion. The process to create my own kind of baroque ecstasy brings me joy and connects me to the Italian Renaissance masters. Many typologies consist of a given main component that acts as the heart that informs how the body is fleshed out. Every element I incorporate into my sculptures carries a personal vignette, which is thoroughly saturated with histories, memories, musings, and resin. E pluribus unum – out of many, one. The sculptures are a body politic that reflect the time I live in. 

I welded together two Husqavarna motocross bike frames and then battered and deep fried them with a slurry of egg, breadcrumb and Italian seasoning. I was inspired by Billy the Beef Tallow Boy from Ren & Stimpy, who taught me I could deep fry anything, and my favorite appetizer: calamari, to create an all-American (Etruscan inspired) chariot. Revel in it, full throttle.

I have found that certain combinations make for perfect poetic unions: Amarelli liquorice and dog ticks, cattails and urinal cake, bald eagle excrement and Tang drink mix, aluminum (once dubbed the modern metal which adorns the tippy top of the Washington Monument) and pomade, silicone, glitter, and fabric scraps. They add to the building of complex systems, braiding memory, feelings, culture, identity, economics, excess, waste, and more, as I did with my mother’s hair.

Mass MoCA: Installation view of Daniel Giordano, “Love from Vicki Island,” 2023, at MASS MoCA. Photo by Ernesto Eisner, courtesy of the artist.

KAR:  Your series of self-portrait masks are expansive, wondrous and speculative (titled Self-Portrait 150 Years Ago, Self-Portrait 150 Years From Now, etc.). Each one includes “moisturizing face mask” as a material. Bugiardo, or liar in Italian, is the only self-portrait with lucky rabbits’ feet. Can you tell us more about your title naming process in your works?

DG: Each extended series or typology consists of an overarching title, in addition to a consistent theme, sometimes scale and color, materiality, form, and gesture. Each vein of work has a particular name. For example, there are My Scorpios, Study For Brothers, Pleasure Pipes, and more. Each individual work is either numbered, given its own unique name, or both, such as in works My Scorpio I, Study For Brother as the Timid Ballerino, or Pleasure Pipe III (Frank)

Titling is an extension of the sculpture. I like for my titles to feel purposeful, absurd, playful, cheeky, suggestive, and poetic. It may open up more points of entry for people to access the work and perhaps broadens the conversations surrounding it. 

My titles tend toward autobiographical mythology. Study For Brother is a portrait of my older beloved brother, Anthony. He is my main muse, and I envelope all my different imaginings of him and embellishments of his being in this typology. My Scorpio references Anthony’s zodiac sign and is inspired by his favorite object at the Metropolitan Museum, the Etruscan chariot. The Cannoli typology is informed by the dessert that would be present on my grandmother’s kitchen counter, at Italian pastry shops, and in big greasy pastry boxes gifted by one of the retired seamstresses of my family’s coat factory. 

When it comes to titling exhibitions, I choose a noteworthy phrase from a conversation, film, or book. I want the titles to broaden the possible interpretations of my exhibits. The show titles don’t necessarily relate to the work on display, rather, I wish for them to complement the name of the venue, and the interior architecture in order to anthropomorphize the setting, making it feel theatrical or arena-like.

The title of each of my solo presentations is also used as a prompt to motivate my brother to write a section of his ongoing story. We started the tradition back in 2019 with my first solo exhibition in NYC at SARDINE. I have always advocated for his writing to be used as the text that accompanies my shows. The connection that we have as brothers is evident in our respective mediums. My dream is to one day publish a novella of these writings of Anthony’s.

KAR: Your works often blend organic and inorganic objects and many of the materials are food items tied to your Italian-American heritage. How do these sculptures at times broadcast residues from your past?  

DG: My sculptures serve as reliquaries to my life, encapsulating my feelings, my loved ones, my Italian-American heritage, experience, and hometown. Iconic symbols of America such as bald eagle excrement, TruckNutz, Tang drink mix, bison tails, and sports vehicles become important elements in my work. Even specimens collected from the surrounding landscape, whether natural or invasive, are melded together. 

The formation of my sculptures is memory-fueled. As a child, I recall scurrying in between the sewing machines to distribute patterns to the seamstresses working in my family’s garment factory. From my vantage point, I noticed their stockinged legs ending in peep-toe pumps which activated the sewing machines via the foot pedal. These seamstresses were like surrogate grandmothers to me. Many of them were Italian immigrants that carried with them traditions from their home country, passing along tales, gestures, expressions, and food that connected me to my Italian heritage.

I immortalize their memory with a typology of work entitled Pumps (formerly known as Heels). My memory of the seamstresses has intermingled with my mother’s enthusiasm for the Rockettes and their eye-high kicks, who are inextricably linked to magical Christmases: a holiday my mother made extraordinarily special for me and my brother, from finding reindeer hoof prints and nibbles of carrots in the snow on our tiny balcony, to Santa delivering exactly what I wished for under the tree despite them kept secret. 

Pleasure Pipes pays homage to my grandfather Frank. Even though he passed away before I was born, his legacy is felt in my family and immortalized in my work. Every photograph of him has a tobacco pipe resting either between his lips or nestled in his hands. These sculptures range from true to life to gigantic in scale, the latter signifying his grandiose character.

Study For Brother comes out of manifesting fantastical imaginings of my brother as a humanoid creature, untouched by Chronos. Brother embodies characters ranging from “Gandalf the White to a “Timid Ballerino.” Over the years I have cultivated a mythos surrounding his erotic inclinations. A true satyr: the story goes, my teenage brother ran off for a romantic weekend with some woman he met on the internet and my mother became worried sick. She called her brother Harold in desperation to tell him what was unfolding and feared for her son’s life. I heard my uncle heartily laugh on the other end of the line saying, “Poor Anthony: He’s got a zucchini on his back and an olive in his ear!” Harold then hung up on my mother. All I could surmise was that my brother, Anthony, had become so fertile from his lecherous activities that he began magically sprouting Italian fruits and vegetables from his body, thus the Study for Brother vein of work was born. 

“Daniel Giordano: Love From Vicki Island,” Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams, MA. Through December 2023. 

Also on view:

The Dog That Ate The Birthday Cake,” with Daniel Giordano and Karlos Cárcamo. Visitor Center, 233 Liberty Street, Newburgh, NY, Newburgh, NY. Through December 30, 2023.

About the author: Kari Adelaide Razdow curates independently at The Sphinx Northeast, an itinerant curatorial project. Her writing has appeared in BOMB, Eyes Towards the Dove, Huffington Post, Hyperallergic, NYLON, the Walker Art Center Blog, and elsewhere, as well as Two Coats of Paint. Her book Enchanted Pedagogies: Archetypes, Magic, and Knowledge was published last month.

NOTE: The Two Coats of Paint 2023 Year-end Fundraising Campaign is underway, and our goal this year is to reach 100% reader participation. If you enjoy the artist interviews, exhibition reviews, NYC and HV Selected Gallery Guides, and other Two Coats painting-cenric content, this is your opportunity to be a part of it. Please consider making a tax deductible contribution to support the project in 2024. Thank you for all your help keeping the conversation going.

Click here to contribute.

One Comment

  1. This is a wonderful interview. Daniel Giordano tells his story and explains his magic in a down to earth way.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *