On a Mi(ssion)
By Adam Rathe
Photography by Amos Mac
If you think you haven’t heard of Ssion, the smart, subversive, pop-song performance project helmed by Kentucky native Cody Critcheloe, perhaps you’ve just been mispronouncing it.
The name, copped from Boston post-punk pioneers Mission of Burma, sounds like shun, but bewilderment regarding how exactly to talk about the group -- and people are talking -- is just part of Critcheloe’s plan.
“I love the name, how it looks, and how it’s confusing for people,” he says. “I love that people can’t pronounce it or that they think it’s my name.”
Launched as a bedroom project when Critcheloe was a teenager in Lewisport, Ky., Ssion is now comprised of his music, videos, visual artwork, and live shows featuring a rotating cast of bandmates, all of which play heavily with costumes, makeup, and video. The result is akin to a series of outtakes from a John Waters–directed Culture Club biopic.
Artistic early adopters have been clued in to Critcheloe’s work for years; he’s directed music videos for Santigold, Peaches, MNDR, and the Liars. When he was in art school, he created the eye-catching packaging for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ debut record, Fever to Tell. But with this month’s release of the Ssion album Bent, as well as summer tour dates across the U.S., Critcheloe and his gang of gender outlaw collaborators are poised for much larger exposure.
For Critcheloe, a Brooklyn resident often seen sporting a sleazy handlebar mustache, time in the limelight isn’t the end goal.
“I want to be able to live well and do exactly what I want to do -- and that’s not crazy,” he says. “I’m glad that someone’s putting out my record, but ultimately, I would do this regardless. I’ve been doing this same thing forever; it’s just that, recently, people have started to pay attention.”
After fleeing at 18 from his Kentucky hometown, where the local movie theaters and diners were a half-hour’s drive away, he landed at the Kansas City Art Institute. There, Critcheloe began working with stop-motion animation and became immersed in the local art and music scene. He set up camp in a 3,000-square-foot loft, where he was able to churn out music, videos, and artwork. A 2001 move to New York City didn’t stick, but after a 2010 Manhattan gallery show of his work, a three-night engagement at MoMA PS1 -- an incubator for avant-garde work -- and an eviction from that loft, Critcheloe decided to give the city another chance.