It's an intriguing world of iconic pop characters, mid-20th-century muscle men, and scenes from novels and literature, all juxtaposed with classic religious iconography. Cavalieri’s world is dark and gothic – and also illumined by a sly sense of humor.
A School of Visual Arts graduate in graphic design, Cavalieri didn’t work in glass until a 1997 class at Urban Glass with Judith Schaechter. To date, Cavalieri is among a small minority of fine glass artists who intentionally set out to create exciting images that deliver a message with a wallop and a wink.
In his early projects, he used conventional hand cut and painted stained glass images that were based on self-portraits of his alter-ego, Midnight Lasagna, a vivacious Italian drag queen. It’s in this first work that Cavalieri playfully incorporates gay culture with religious symbols.
By 2007, Midnight Lasagna gave way to the magazine muscle men of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. In glass panels, Cavalieri celebrates three body builders—Boyer Coe, George Greenwood and Robert Roy--each an “Adonis of the Era.” Cavalieri’s mission was to “display perfect proportions and pre-steroid bodies from a very innocent time in America.”
Unlike the traditional flat cut-glass techniques previously used, Cavalieri’s more recent work has depth. In both Caged Man and ABNYC, he uses two layers of glass to give the image a deeper perspective. Caged Man consists of 90 pieces of clear, tinted, and opaque cut glass. The image of the body builder is silkscreened onto the glass. A border of crosses and solid circles are painstakingly hand painted with an enamel-based paint that adheres permanently to glass during the firing process. After each individual piece is fired in a kiln at 1250 degrees, the glass’s edge is wrapped in copper foil and soldered together. The finished piece is then set in a specially-designed custom wooden light box.
Although layering is common in stained glasswork (Tiffany used layers, most often to represent water) the spooky and surreal Gormenghast--based on Mervyn Peake’s trilogy—features a Cavalieri trademark--five layers of glass for greater depth of field. For Gormenghast to come alive, Cavalieri took multiple steps in developing the panel—from a simple sketch to a full-size cartoon. And as if creating a jigsaw puzzle, he cut over 350 pieces of colored, tinted and clear glass, and hand painted and airbrushed images on over 90 of them. With each layer, Gormenghast becomes more intricate and even more fantastic: In a lion’s mouth is the prone body of a man, bearing a tattoo that says, “He was an Enemy of Groan.” As you scan down the panel, your eyes rest on a tree-lined lane with mystifying cats that leads to the ominous castle that seeps blood down its path; at the bottom of the pane blood oozes and spills, like molten lava, down to the sleepy village. The macabre beauty of Gormenghast successfully leaves the viewer with an unforgettable image and a few chills.
As with traditional church windows which graphically communicate biblical tales or the lives of the faithful, Cavalieri’s work captures 21st century attitudes towards sexuality, contemporary culture and politics for this generation and future ones to contemplate, analyze, and enjoy.
To view Gormenghast and Joseph Cavalieri’s other work, visit www.cavaglass.com. Public art installations can be seen at Dixon Place Theatre in Manhattan, and at the Philipse Manor Train Station, in Sleepy Hollow, New York.
Author Rebeca Schiller is the driving force behind Alvah's Books at www.alvahsbooks.com.