‘C.F. Giordano: Clearly Misunderstood’

Charlie Giordano upends expectations at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.


When is a motorcycle more than a motorcycle? Certainly, when Charlie Giordano builds one, as you will see in his show “C.F. Giordano: Clearly Misunderstood,” at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

You might ask why a motorcycle is starring in an exhibition in the first place. That’s perhaps a question Giordano would hope you might ponder. He says, “I thought it would be interesting and fun to bring something a little different into the museum; to maybe show people who have a distinct definition of art as one thing that it might be something else as well. Some people with a conservative or more historical approach to fine art might look at this and say, ‘It’s a motorcycle.’ Maybe if they spend some more time, they will see that it has as much thought and sensitivity in making it as making an oil painting.”

We walk into the show through the gaping mouth of a giant electric green devil, reminiscent of a funhouse entrance. Every surface is plastered with small symbolic imagery, many with tongue-in-cheek implications. The left wall is adorned like the front of a stage you would see in a carnival, emphasizing the highly theatrical air. Straight ahead is a wall-size black-and-white photograph of Giordano, surrounded by the tools of his trade in his overstuffed shop.

Center stage, in pride of place, is “Voodoo Doll,” the fantastical motorcycle. Giordano builds each of his bikes with a theme. Thinking about what they are at their very essence, he shares, “If I were to distill motorcycles down to their basic element, for me — and I think other people — they are like magic things. That’s why so many people are so enthralled with them. When you ride motorcycles, there’s this magic that takes place.” He continues, “It keeps you out of the past and out of the future. It cements you square in the present, which is comfortable and nice, so you’re not anxious or depressed. There is magic in that, so I thought that magic might make a great theme, since that is what they are to me.”

The question became how you represent magic. Voodoo came to mind because he finds its symbolism and iconography fun. “I thought, Voodoo is edgy enough to play with,” he says.

Giordano learned a lot about voodoo’s mixture of Catholicism and African religions from Haitian practitioners: “There’s a lot to draw from. It’s visceral and kind of goes with motorcycles. Voodoo can also be negative or positive. You can curse or hex somebody, or you can help them and save them. Motorcycles are the same way. They will give you relief and joy, and they might also kill or hurt you. I was interested in exploring that duality.”

It took Giordano about two years to build “Voodoo Doll” from scratch — from the mechanics to elaborate decoration. “I just learn by monkeying around. Knowing how to do something, having permission, having some sort of license is pretty limiting. I figure out how to do whatever I need to do. That’s the value in the process,” he says. For him, “The bike is just a byproduct, the remnants of the process I went through in building it. For instance, I’d never taken a skull and cut it in half and put lights in its eyeballs before. You figure it out.”

Every square inch of “Voodoo Doll” carries meaning, as do all the other objects that fill the space. The wall signs provide insight, and the backstory of their inspiration. Giordano includes a second bike that is not yet finished, titled “Red Molly,” inspired by Richard Thompson’s 1952 song, “Vincent Black Lightning,” about love and motorcycles. Push the large button on the wall, and you can hear it as you gaze at the outfitted mannequin, dressed in a black leather jacket sporting a skeleton design, sitting coolly atop the machine with a helmet on its lap. Giordano uses the helmet, along with the others in the show, as a canvas for wild imagery filled with specific meaning.

For example, the “Geisha Girl” helmet sports a Japanese flag–inspired design with the image of a geisha on the side, and sits on the lap of a mannequin dressed in Giordano’s racing suit. The story behind it relates to a Japanese bike he fell in love with when he was 17 years old, but could not afford until 35 years later when, by good fortune, he could track one down.

Giordano rebels against the term artist: “I think everybody is an artist. You just have to do stuff. I want to experience and explore as much of life as I can before I croak.” He says about Renaissance men (and women), “It’s not that they were better than anybody else; they were more integrated. They did a lot of different things. It’s not only admirable, but it’s probably the best way to live. And it’s fun.”

Giordano created every aspect, nook, and cranny of “Clearly Misunderstood,” which is a wildly immersive world of its own. He says of the creation process, “When you’re working on something, hopefully, you’re learning about the world. You are learning about yourself. I think the next thing I build will not be a motorcycle. I’m going to carve a big wooden carousel horse with a new spin on it, or something, because I’ve not done that before, and I want to learn about it.” And we leave the show eager to see Giordano’s next creation.

“C.F. Giordano: Clearly Misunderstood” is on view through May 5 at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. The program “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Building” will be held on Thursday, March 28, from 5:30 to 6:30 pm. The immersive workshop, led by Charlie Giordano for teens and motorcycle enthusiasts alike, will offer a rare glimpse into the intricate process of building a motorcycle from scratch, with hands-on experience and insights into the artistry behind motorcycle construction, from the initial concept to the final nuts and bolts.