Let’s dive in with “Infinite Caca” — my first encounter with Tita Cicognani’s deliriously polymorphous practice. The centerpiece of the installation-cum-immersive environment was Grotto Tub (Hot Tub #2) (2022), a self- contained, slightly hallucinatory pleasure pod elaborated around an inflatable tub. Its liquid interior was rendered kaleidoscopic by its mirrored Plexiglas walls and outline of LED lights that modulated seductively to a droning soundtrack, transforming the whole thing into a type of large-scale mood ring. By contrast, its exterior was a more roughly hewn assemblage upholstered with rock- printed fabric punctuated by clip art motifs of doves, butterflies, and flower petals — a syrupy veneer disrupted at various points by visible plumbing pumping out darkly colored liquids (a video looping nearby of two figures mud wrestling in a kiddie pool underscored the scatological punchline). The overall effect is not unlike what would happen if an abandoned Playboy Mansion dip pool somehow evolved inexplicably into a semi- sentient digestive system.
As this implies, the whole thing was “alive” — or at least fully operational, deploying its glitzy kitsch as more than just a purely optical lure. Indeed, for the opening event at Leroy’s, the Los Angeles artist-run gallery/event space/ speakeasy (housed in the former Thanh Vi restaurant in Chinatown and accessible via the rear parking garage), guests were encouraged to bring a bathing suit and towel. For those who did not but nevertheless fell under the thrall of the grotto’s gravitational pull, a tidy changing area with complimentary towels was provided. When I arrived, several nubile attendants were drying off after a preliminary dip — art-school naiads basking in post-bathing bliss. A parched, tired, and somewhat burnt-out art fair traveler, I was mesmerized by their abandon and tempted into following their lead by the still-rippling surface of the water and the bobbing eyes of a pair of inflatable swans that seemed to both beckon me into the technicolor maw and mock my modest reticence. I still regret not taking them up on the invitation.
The disarming qualities of certain specific material interventions are for me the clearest through line animating the output of the New York–born, Los Angeles–based artist. It has evolved as a sustained exploration of kitsch vernaculars, topmost among them the “hot tub” and its historical embeddedness in bad 1970s design, swinger parlance, and gay bathhouses; the accoutrements of kink and BDSM (a subculture she also remains personally invested in); as well as aspects of Catholicism (specifically the aesthetics of its attendant merch) woven in with representations of religious ecstasy and alien abduction fantasies. These may seem like disparate points of reference, but they are linked by the ability of inanimate matter to elicit a bodily response (pain, aversion, disgust, arousal, titillation, rapture, or, most deliciously, a mixture of all), and through that transport us into heightened experiences and perhaps even alternate states of consciousness. As she notes in our coast-to-coast call, “I’ve always been drawn to materials that are intended to look natural but failing miserably at that. For instance, something that looks like crocodile skin — it’s trying to mimic this naturally occurring phenomenon but in a way that perverts it in a completely dumb and clear way.”
This spectacle of materials degrading themselves for our pleasures (or is it the other way around?) defines Cicognani’s approach to sculpture and is present throughout her earlier work, most notably the installation Fuzzy Dungeon (2019), a mini S&M boudoir outfitted with faux-shearling-upholstered equipment, including a sex sling, spanking bench, and torture cross. The garish, pink-lit scene is punctuated by a soundtrack of sporadic moans and screams and is only visible via a strategically placed peep hole that is also lined with the fuzzy stuff — making the viewer keenly aware of the act of looking (and also the impractical, absorbent nature of this chosen fabric). This pleasure-pain continuum similarly inflects Prayer Cards (2019), a deck familiar to any good altar boy or girl, that is here redesigned with the image of the artist as immaculate martyr in resplendent gimp gear, smartly accessorized with oozy stigmata and Holy Ghost dove frozen in digital glory. This saint-like passion for suffering is chronicled most fully in the video I Am So Full of Longing and Desire It Gushes Out of My Knees As They Scrape the Ground Upon Which I Crawl Toward You (2020). In it, a black bikini-clad, alien-esque avatar with enlarged hands (who bears a passing resemblance to Cicognani herself) crawls through a wasteland of images, movie clips, and stock digital landscapes — an open- ended atonement to an unknown figure who gifts her an emoji bouquet of flowers at the beginning. The figure’s aimless trek is intercut with closeups of her wounded knees, the bloody trails she leaves behind, and clips from pop culture mainstays like Sex & the City, Titanic, The Bachelorette, Real Housewives, some Britney Spears music videos, as well as that weird Kim-and-Kanye- on-the-motorcycle one for good measure — in short a barrage of romantic clichés set to a slowed-down version of Alice Deejay’s “Better Off Alone.”
In their unique way, each of these pieces turns on a core maxim: the numerous ways we devise to demean ourselves in the pursuit of an other — be it an object of lust, romantic affection, or holy fervor. These are performed so persistently and with such synthetic ardor that they approach (and/or surpass) a degree of absurdity, reasserting the mantra of Cicognani’s cosmology that pleasure and desire are inextricable from pain — in fact, they are constitutive of each other (the naughty salt to our chaste caramel). Implicit in this equation is another unspoken other for whom we joyfully debase ourselves, and that is, of course, art. After all, what is art if not another fetish kink? Perhaps the most perverse at this historical juncture in its indulgent absurdity. We need only a cursory glance to glean all the material indignities we happily suer in its pursuit: astronomical debt, familial scorn, uncertain incomes, shitty flights, bad sleeping arrangements, unstable personalities, outdated pedagogies, auction houses… we could go on and on. Cicognani recognizes the depravity at the core of art making and performs it incessantly as a formal operation and material principle, the language of S&M and religious devotion providing an apt analog for the absurdist vocation we all share. Spiky Chair/Bad Student and Papal Gimp Hoods (both 2019), realized in studio while a student at Art Center, speak vividly to this.
I imagine many of us contemplated much of the above during the lockdown hiatus. At least I certainly did — pondering if the industry I participate in would persist in a recognizable form (turns out it did). Cicognani did as well, and this reverie prompted the first iteration of grotto, The Mothership (Hot Tub #1) (2021), a towering polyhedron covered in faux lizard skin and crowned with a disco ball, its moist middle pulsatile with the play of LED lights against reflective surfaces. “I really wanted it for myself,” notes Cicognani before adding, “it was actually a nightmare to put together and take apart.” This indulgent nightmare was partly possible because Art Center shut down all on-campus studios, in accordance with California protocols, but had later set up a temporary outpost in LA’s Chinatown, where students could work in relative isolation observing social distance — or at least in theory, as the facilities were tantalizingly away from the watchful eye of any authority. “After spending so much time alone,” she notes, “I wanted another experience, something to share with others: peers, friends, even strangers. Since it was o campus, I could set it up in my studio without anyone really monitoring. It turned into this cesspool of everyone sitting in a small body of stagnant water — amazing but also gross. It was like a giant injection of bacteria that felt needed to counter all the sterility.”
I am reminded that in proper dosages bacteria can be both a purgative and a probiotic.
And it might be for this reason that as I revert to any number of art-historical go-to’s to contextualize and/or buttress my take on Cicognani’s work, I am suddenly self- conscious. Even a favored Hal Foster quote on the “artifice of abjection” from 1990’s Return of the Real that seemed particularly apt now strikes me as a bit strained, like regurgitating partially digested theoretical morsels in order to process something much more unruly — or maybe it’s just superfluous.
Besides, Juliana Halpert does a great job of tracing the art-historical genealogy of the tub in her essay accompanying Cicognani’s institutional debut at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, which recently hosted the third iteration of grotto. This was a particularly intriguing litmus test, as the freedom of studio experimentation came up against the ossified parameters of the institution. A platform for unregulated spontaneity suddenly met with the demands of liability controls, scheduled time slots, health code parameters, and release forms. The centerpiece is another pool, this time decadently heart-shaped, a Madonna Inn fantasia but adjusted to meet the exigencies of its new site — for instance, a heart-shaped handrail was added for ADA compliance, as well as a decidedly corporate shade of wall- to-wall carpeting to ensure some traction for museum goers brave enough to take up the installation’s semi-open proposition.
Unlike the previous two iterations, this grotto functions more explicitly as a viewing pod, angled cinematically toward a large screen that loops the video I still believe (2022). In it, the familiar avatar (sometimes referred to as “Ms. Hands”) paces aimlessly in a depressingly bland motel room, a plastic sunset glaring in the background. A heart-shaped tub oers the sole escape, a portal into a brief cosmic journey of astral abandon. Upon her return to the mortal plane, Ms. Hands is visited by a UFO and impregnated by a beam of light in a latter-day annunciation meets immaculate conception of the third kind. The ensuing birth is messy and monstrous; the ospring an unresolved amalgam that seems to pose more questions than it answers. This scenario plays out thrice in a loop, with each variation oering subtle nuances. In the final one, Ms. Hands finally embraces her creation, nursing it before the two of them beam through the portal to an unspecified home.