“You’re going straight to hell!”
On the face of it, the reaction of a delivery boy who collected one of Joseph Cavalieri’s first sold pieces might not have been construed as altogether encouraging. But for Cavalieri himself, it was a sign he was on the right track. “Once I heard this I knew I had to keep doing what I was doing. It was a response all artists aspire to.”
Cavalieri’s work involves taking the medieval art of stained glass windowmaking out of the Middle Ages, and putting it in contemporary living rooms. But this summation, concise as it is, nevertheless misses the point. Look again, and you find Joseph’s stained glass world consists of a kangaroo with an appetite for Sydney’s skyscrapers, dead characters from The Simpsons hitched to religious iconography, Tony Abbott with twenty heads, and a bird with two. In amongst this madness are evocative pokes at politics, America, and our modern culture. It is against this backdrop, then, that Cavalieri’s initial response about his presumed fate begins to make slightly more sense.
The New York artist has brought his brand of 21st-century stained glass graffiti to Rozelle, as he undertakes a one-month research residency and lectures at Sydney’s College of Visual Arts.
“I had heard of the good reputation of the college here,” he said. “When the opportunity arose, I had to take it. I’m not sure if people are aware here, but Australia has some fantastic glass artists. The best in the trade obviously are in Italy, but Australia is right up there ranked second.”
Traditionally, stained glass windows are found only in churches. Step into your local chapel and you will find windows illustrating narratives inspired by the Bible. It goes without saying that for Joseph, inspiration materialises in a different form.
“I get along with my students very well. I take them through the whole process of producing the work, selling the works and so on. But it seems that I have been feeding from them also. My most recent work, ‘The twenty faces of Tony Abbott’, actually came from numerous discussions about Australian politics with my students. They ended in an overall consensus: Tony Abbott is a two-faced politician. I elaborated on this theme by giving Abbott 20 heads.”
With the initial aim to base his work around Indigenous Australian folklore, he was put off with the complications involved. Instead he opted to offer his own future folklore fable, calling it The Kangaroo that ate Sydney.
“The most significant character in this piece is the two-headed bird,” Cavalieri said. “This fellow acts as an omen from the future from which our genetically-modified future is heading towards.”
But it’s for an earlier set of work that Cavalieri is most famous – specifically, a series called ‘The Missing Episodes’. These multi-layered stained glass panels show characters from the TV animation The Simpsons in morbid yet beautiful settings.
“My Simpsons characters do have deep significance,” Cavalieri said. “I was looking for an icon of American culture, one that everybody could relate to. The Simpsons presented themselves as the most globally recognised symbol of America. So the image of their death offers a comment on the decline of America, culturally and morally.”
While the method has been practised since medieval times, the content has been radically changed. His work may not receive a commission for a spot in the Notre Dame – but it has been purchased by two Simpsons writers in Los Angeles, and now hangs in the show’s studios. His work is not only for those fans of the two-dimensional, couch-bound yellow family, but rather for all who appreciate thought-provoking, multi-dimensional, social commentary in art. The unusual juxtapositions are the true beauty of Cavalieri’s work – an icon of pop culture alongside a centuries-old societal institution in the church; the medieval and the contemporary, pop culture socialising with high culture.
Joseph Cavalieri’s Sydney exhibition will be held from 5pm on March 30, in the campus gallery at the Sydney College of Arts, Rozelle campus. For more info, visit www.cavaglass.com
by Jacob Moss