What Does An Artist Wear?

A Conversation with Cheryl Donegan

WE’VE MET MANY TIMES before we have this conversation: drinking homemade kombucha at the apartment she shares with her family. She is forever animated, smiling, hospitable. I have the impression that whatever question I would throw her way she would answer with the same sincere transparency.


I’ve always been interested in play and in clothing. I used to put on fashion shows when I was a kid, and parade around with whatever we had in our closets. Later, in the 1990s, when I started working with single channel video, I was of course interested in how I appeared as a performer. I was inspired by performance work made in the 1960s and 1970s, but the aesthetics of artists working then was always ‘come as you are.’ Think of Bruce Nauman, Martha Rosler, William Wegman or even Joan Jonas. I, on the other hand, had MTV and pop culture by then. For those musicians and artists costume was always paramount, and I was also thinking about how I could purposefully enter my space as a performer. I felt that as a performer I needed a costume, something separate from what I’d wear in my everyday life. When I made ‘Kiss My Royal Irish Ass’ in 1993 I wore a bra and a G-string, but I knew they couldn’t be black or red – they had to be green. I wanted something a bit ridiculous; nothing that could be mistaken for sexy. A bright green bra and panties aren’t tools of seduction, they’re just goofy. Later, when I made ‘Line’ in 1996 I was inspired by Jean Luc Godard’s Le Mépris. I was the only performer so I had to signal that I was playing different roles. I wrapped a red towel around my body or wore a blond wig to play the Brigitte Bardot character and I wore a pork pie hat to play the Michel Piccoli character. Simple things like that. I’d typically use really artless props, whatever I had lying around. I didn’t have great assets so I had to be resourceful, you know, the way kids do plays: ‘Let’s just use this bathroom towel to be the king’s robe, or make this chair the king’s castle.’

Cheryl Donegan, Lieder, from the ‘The Janice Tapes,’ 2000.  Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York. In this two-minute video video, Donegan fashioned a mask from leaking plastic jugs.

There was no one artistic in my family in the conventional sense, but my grandmother was constantly knitting and sewing. She made so many of my clothes when I was growing up: it was almost obsessive. As a girl I remember being frustrated because the remake of ‘The Great Gatsby’ with Mia Farrow and Robert Redford had just come out and I really wanted a dropped-waist dress, Twenties-style like in the film. It was the height of mall culture but we didn’t have a lot of money so my grandmother suggested I take the pattern of a dress I liked and simply add five inches to the hips and drop the waist. Realizing I could do things like that was a revelation. Later, when ‘Saturday Night Fever’ came out I just loved all those disco dresses. I was living in small town Massachusetts where, even if I had had the money, there was just nowhere to buy those kind of clothes. Instead I just went and got some qiana nylon, this clingy, shiny, synthetic fabric, and started sewing. So as a young teenager I was already making all these garments, clothes for a much more glamorous life than the one I had. I remember my sister being really freaked out and telling our mother, ‘You must stop her, she looks like a fool. I’m not going to school with her.’ I’d made myself this version of a Yves Saint Laurent gypsy costume with a big flowing skirt and a peasant blouse. I wore a bandana in my hair and I put pins on it. I really must have looked like a freak. But both my mom and my grandmother kept encouraging me, and for me it was a real creative outlet. My mom had this famous saying – ‘Let’s go shopping for ideas!’ It was basically window shopping, and it had a huge effect on me. I could see what was out there, and figure out how to make my own version of it.

By the time I got to art school, things changed for me style-wise. I hadn’t been at RISD more than three months before I threw away every single garment I came with and bought a whole new wardrobe in thrift stores. Other students would sell their old clothes to make a bit of extra money on the weekends, and I realized that I could literally transform myself into an ‘art student’ because I could acquire clothes that the other art students had worn and were now ridding themselves of. The power that fashion has to transform you, by hook or by crook, has been a theme with me for a long time. At thirteen I was becoming a small town Yves Saint Laurent girl, and five years later I transformed myself into this bona fide art student, a Talking Heads bohemian punk girl. The last time I made a garment from scratch was probably when I got married. I wanted something special to wear for our engagement party but we were so broke I couldn’t afford to buy anything. I made a transparent wrap blouse: it was the end of the Eighties. I still alter things all the time though; I’m forever buying things from Ebay and altering them. Almost everything I have is second hand. My taste levels exceed my wallet, as usual – that’s never stopped.

A lot of artists develop ‘artist’s costumes’ – for me it’s my silver rings. I wear one on every finger. To people who don’t work in the creative world, it might appear eccentric that my fingers are bristling with metal, but when you’re an artist those things usually just go unremarked. I’ve been wearing them since my first kid was born, so for at least twenty years. I put them on like a priest would fasten his collar. Also, I don’t care what they say – the athleisure trend has made a huge impact on me. My style today is a kind of mashup: art teacher bohemian meets gym rat. Which actually describes my fashion collections really well too. When I made ‘Extra Layer’ for the New Museum I was definitely in an art-school-collage-meets-New-York-City-gymwear frame of mind. I wear the tracksuits from ‘Extra Layer’ all the time. Maybe it’s just me, but I find that there’s something sexual about them: the way they have zippers in wrong places, or the way certain parts of the body are highlighted – almost like meat hanging in a butcher’s shop – because of how the pattern intersects the garment. Tracksuits already turn the body into these aerodynamic paths, and when I’ve double-printed onto them to misalign the shapes – a tracksuit on the tracksuit – it calls attention to funny parts of the body. The focus can end up on parts you might not want highlighted: the crotch or the armpit, say. There’s a perviness to those tracksuits. When I wear them I like to contrast them with something like a flowing skirt and a silky blouse: I like the mix of naughty and prim. Practical and perverted. I like things that are a little off.

For the clothes I’m showing here in Aspen I’m using standard garments again, shapes that everybody is familiar with. I picked a long shirt and a slip dress from the Print All Over Me repertoire. And then, well… Did you ever notice when you walk down the streets of New York that air conditioners stick out the windows everywhere? Well sometimes people take blunt instruments, like a coin or something, and push down the grates to make a scratchitti or a frottage in the grill, like a rubbing with their signature or a little figure or something like that. Some people say it’s vandalism but to me they’re little abstract silver paintings that stick out all over the city. Every time I see a particularly beautiful one, I take a photo of it. I have a huge collection now. I’ve printed some of the best on the garments for this show – they remind me of a legion of tin men dressed in gestural slashes.

Often if you make a foray in a new direction as an artist, people tend to want to push you all the way. When I started making clothes as part of my art practise people would say, ‘Oh, so you’re a designer now.’ People want to professionalize you, probably for their own convenience. For me it’s more about evolving, discovering, adding, mixing rather than professionalizing and determining. That’s how I see my work. My clothes are a kind of meditation on fashion, just like they’re a mediation on performance and painting – I see it as less me making ‘fashion’ than me making something that’s thinking about fashion.

Much to my disappointment people don’t seem to think of my garments as something to wear. I often hear, ‘Oh, that’s good for you, but I couldn’t wear it.’ They seem to think it’s too out there or weird or garish. I don’t know if the broken gingham pattern I’ve used in the past was seen as too childlike or raggedy maybe. Or too punk? I do want people to wear them. As I see it, the garments are analogous to my paintings but less rarefied. They can be into the world: talismans of the creative process. I want them to be accessible spin-offs. The concepts I work with are the same, whether I paint or print on garments: mapping, folding or rotating one surface on to another, in this Mobius strip kind of way. You wouldn’t normally find these kind of patterns in a commercial context, though I look to the thought-process and wit that goes into a Martin Margiela, Comme des Garçons or Vetements piece. I really appreciate when designers play with the signifiers of clothing. I respect those designers immensely, though of course they do their work at a very rarefied level that I’ve aspired to or tried to mimic all my life as a consumer. Wanting the original but getting the remade, homemade version. I’m forever following along behind the wagon, picking up the bits of coal. Kind of doing my own thing. [Laughs]

There is a bit of failure on my part when it comes to the garments I make, since they’re not really reaching people in the way I’d like. Perhaps it’s a marketing problem. I’m not branding them as ‘Cheryl Donegan’ or even a label I might invent for myself, like ‘Your Plastic Bag.’ You know, I used to have a Tumblr account called that. Back in 2005 we were a bit broke again and I was casting around for a day job. At some point I was fantasizing about starting a personal style blog, and I dabbled a little in it before thinking better of it. I realized that it wasn’t so much about making money off of it for me, but rather about accumulating images and a personal aesthetic. I’d take the garments I liked on Ebay and since I couldn’t buy them all, move the images from my watch list and post them on my blog. It became a thought sketchbook of sorts. I did it really religiously for five years. Anyway, I’m digressing a little bit. The point is that I do want my clothes to be known and accessible. It’s all well and good to make these collections under the auspices of Print All Over Me, and I do love the idea of print-on-demand, and how it allows consumers to be creative. But I want people to know that the clothes are made by me. The name has to be in people’s minds, like, say, ‘My Plastic Bag’ is Cheryl Donegan’s alter ego or brand. I want people to associate the collections with my work as an artist in a very direct way. There is an opportunity there and perhaps it’s a failure on my part that I haven’t figured out how to capitalize on it yet.

Maybe one way of going forward with this particular project is to think of my artist’s practise as a ‘house.’ Did you ever see Paris Is Burning? I’m thinking of ‘house’ in the ball culture sense. The house always has a multiplicity to it because there are so many members. I’m toying with the idea of ‘The House of Your Plastic Bag’ – the paintings could be from the house, the garments could be from the house and we could make zines from the house too. It’s hard to be a house when you’re one person, so maybe it’s a matter of finding other people I could work with on this idea. I do like the idea of diversification versus monolith, which is probably why I’m resisting the idea of ‘brand.’ To me a brand is a monolith – a monopoly with a locked and fixed identity. Brands have to stick to a certain uniformity so that they’re not perceived to be losing their sense of self, or ‘DNA’ in brand speak. I prefer thinking of the various diverse identities that can exist under the same umbrella.

When I think about my relationship to play and clothing today, I can’t help but think about the way my husband and I dress as a couple. There’s a lot of complication there. We’re both really interested in fashion and appearance, though he’s much more interested in rattling beauty or gender norms than I am. It’s funny, as a woman I actually have more freedom or privilege in what I wear. I can afford to be less didactic. I can dress for my own comfort or creativity and not feel like I have to make a point about it. For him, the stakes for dressing can get very high. For me, they don’t need to be. Sometimes I actually say to him, ‘Kenny, you’ve gilded the lily now. You’ve tipped your hand.’ Kenny likes to be out there, but he doesn’t want to be a fool either. When it feels over the top, I do tell him that his outfit is too much like costume, and that he has to take one thing out. You can’t have a bowler hat and a cane. He is in a costume of sorts, but he doesn’t want to be too obvious about it. I don’t mind being a bit more in the background when we go out together, though sometimes I do have to pump myself up a bit to balance better with him. I strive for equilibrium between us, but I honestly don’t mind playing peahen to his peacock. Garnering all that attention also brings a lot of responsibility with it, and it can be quite a relief to just blend into the background a little more. Kenny is newer to fashion though – it’s only in the last years that he’s really come to care and pay attention to what he wears and the impact it can make. I on the other hand, have been thinking about appearance and clothing all my life. I can shape shift a bit around him, and I don’t get as hung up about it. I’ve been doing it my whole life.

Cheryl Donegan is an American video artist. Her solo show, GRLZ + VEILS, is on view at the Aspen Art Museum through December 16, 2018.

Anja Aronowsky Cronberg is Vestoj’s editor-in-chief and founder.