Cianne Fragione’s highly textured surfaces evoke the feeling of a worn landscape or a peeling wall revealing old layers of paint. Her current work, which oscillates between painting and assemblage, is united by her ever-present use of white oil paint and a sensibility for material processes. It is the result of a decades-long career in the arts, which Cianne shared with us for this month's feature.
Cianne Fragione in her studio, 2023. Photo by Elliott O'Donovan.
Cianne Fragione was born and raised in Hartford Connecticut to a Sicilian father and Northern Italian mother. She started dancing at the age of four, and developed a love for performing jazz, ballet, and modern. After graduating high school, she continued to dance professionally at various companies until the age of twenty-nine, when she retired from dance and shifted her creative energy toward fine art, enrolling in Goddard College in Vermont.
At Goddard, she initially focused on avant-garde fashion, producing wearable art. Her focus on fashion emerged from her love for textiles, and started incorporating other materials like glass and metal; eventually she realized that she was more interested in creating art rather than pure fashion, as her work began to extend beyond the limits of what a person could actually wear. She graduated with a degree in mixed-media painting before moving to California to enroll in an MFA program at the John F. Kennedy University Fiberworks Center for the Arts, and she was also invited to be a guest graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. While in California, she studied with and met many prominent artists of the Bay-Area funk art movement, like Jay DeFeo, Manuel Neri, Frank Lobdell, Brian Wall and Anna Valentina Murch. At that time, Funk artists were using found objects to create assemblages, and they focused more on the physical process of making rather than producing a highly refined and polished work of art.
After graduating, Fragione worked as an artist-in-residence for the California Arts-In-Corrections program. At the start, the program was still in its infancy, but by the time Fragione left, it had grown into a mandatory program for every prison in California. She worked for the program for a total of eight years, and for the last three years as the full-time on site director for the program at Solano prison. “We weren’t doing therapy - we were a full art department - there were men doing painting, printmaking, sculpture, music writing, the performed word and theater." She shares, "Then, unlike today, there were a lot of people who were prejudiced because they felt like [the men] didn’t deserve it. I was even rejected from a job opportunity because they saw AIC on my resume.”
Remains of Doric Temple. Oil, pastel, canvas, collage, and oil pencils on paper, 44 x 30 in, 2020. Photo by Lee Stallsworth.
She knew it was time to move on because the effects of working in such a highly-charged environment became clear in her work. “The men were amazing, but it was a mixed bag. Working in a prison with 5,000 men required a lot of energy. After a while, it was closing in on me. I got to a point where I couldn’t breathe in my own work - there was no gesture or life anymore.”After leaving AIC, she resumed dancing semi professionally - Flamenco this time - as a way to further implant the values of dance in her visual work. She retired from dancing once again after a powerful final performance.
Then, she took a teaching position and moved to Kentucky. While in Kentucky, she got access to the materials for an ambitious piece, The Stations of the Cross from a Woman’s perspective. In a series of assemblages, Fragione used the cast-off pieces of copper, wood, and Carrara marble from a renovated
Cathedral to touch on notions of immigration and the loss of community, language, and children. The series inspired a wide range of reactions, with some places not wanting to show it because of its religious theme. “I liked the symbols - Catholicism certainly offers a lot of them. But they’re not religious pieces, not really; they’re Bay Area Funk, is what they are.” Fragione explains. For her, every material included in an assemblage has meaning. “The accordion, for example, still sounds a little but, if you pull it- but it's a gasping breath, a wheeze.”
No Greater Love: The Stations of the Cross from a Woman's Perspective. Photos by Lee Stallsworth.
From Left to Right:
Stations of the Cross VI: Veronica Wipes His Face. Oil, collage, textile, and assemblage on copper, 48 x 24 x 5 in, 2001.
Stations of the Cross XI: Nailed to the Cross. Assemblage on copper and marble, 12 x 4 x 3 in, 1999-2000.
Stations of the Cross XII: Death. Accordion and textiles on marble, 28 x 18 x 5 in, 2001.
The series was well-received especially by older religious women.“The loss is not just the death of a child, it goes way beyond that," she explains, "it’s loss of a language, loss of a culture. When my nonna came to this country at sixteen, she never saw her parents again. For these older ladies in particular, they saw a perspective that acknowledged, for the first time, what a mother would feel. In Catholicism and in the Bible, they sort of dismiss that perspective.”
In 2001, Fragione moved to the Washington D.C. area to teach at Flint Hill School in Oakton, VA, where she developed their upper-level arts program that included a college recruiting program and visiting artist in residence position. In her studio at 52 O Street Studios, Fragione’s work developed into its current fully-mature style that combines assemblage and painting into heavily textured and layered mixed-media paintings.
View of Cianne Fragione's studio wall, 2021.
Her studio process, and subsequent work, is a way for her to meditate on a range of influences. She is influenced by landscape, cultural memory, poetry (especially by Eugenio Montale and haiku by Issa and Basho), and the intuitive feel of gesture. Her training as a professional dancer gives her an acute sensibility for space and movement; she has remarked that when she could no longer dance on stage, she began to dance on canvas.
Her studio practice functions as a way for her to explore memory - both the cultural memory of her ancestors and her own recollections from residencies abroad. Indeed. Her work often evokes the feeling of an Italian landscape: sun-soaked, nostalgic, remnants of ancient things buried and brought up again. Her finished pieces similarly act as portals for a keen viewer.
View of a work table in Cianne's studio. Photo by Elliott O'Donovan, courtesy of the artist.
Fragione's first-floor studio is an extension of her practice. Walls and doors are covered with the same white paint and idiosyncratic scrawl that characterizes her paintings; pieces of books, scraps of cloth, and small works circulate around until they end up in a larger piece, or in the trash; tool carts double as altars, and altars become pieces themselves.
At this point in her career, Fragione continues to pick up steam. Recently, the Baltimore Museum of Art acquired her painting Making Past Present. Her work was also recently acquired by the DC Art Bank Collection as well as the State Department’s Arts in Embassies program. Now, she’s busy at work preparing for a solo exhibition in 2024 at the St. Mary’s College Museum of Art. The show will also feature work by Jay DeFeo, Manuel Neri, and Frank Lobdell to put Fragione’s work in context with the Bay-Area Beat and Funk artists with whom she worked. This connection will create visibility around the artistic process where artists often rework and transform ideas from other artists through their own practices and development.
Rework and transform are good words to sum up much of Fragione's career and practice as it has spanned the visual and performing arts. She incorporates elements of space, movement, construction, and gesture from discrete disciplines into a fully idiosyncratic visual language. Fragments, both in physical form as found objects and in conceptual form as memory and word, are filtered through her studio process until they are transformed into intriguing and powerful works of art.
Making Past Present. Oil, collage, and mixed media on paper, 70.5 x 33 in, 2020. Collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Photo by Lee Stallsworth.