Interview: Adam Wallacavage

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“It sounds cliché but I was really blown away as a child by the Haunted Mansion ride and the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride at Disney World,” remembers Philadelphia artist Adam Wallacavage. This is obvious after a walk-through of his Les Trésors de la Tanière de Neptune show (which wrapped July 26 at NYC’s Jonathan Levine Gallery).

Wallacavage transformed the space with a panoply of beautiful octopi-meet-Gothic light fixtures set against a backdrop of undulating kelp wallpaper, all in a ’60s cartoon palette of flat mint, purple, turquoise, and black.

The man’s fantastical chandeliers and sconces don’t come cheap (running anywhere from $3,200 to $14,000), but you may be inspired to learn that he made everything in the show in three months, by hand in his home using cast plaster, epoxy resin, and lamp parts. And the do-it-yourself-ness doesn’t stop there. When he’s not out snapping carnival rides or his friends doing 360 nose-grinds, the accomplished photographer is working on the Victorian-like interior of his house in South Philly and creating custom wallpapers for his company, Curio Wallcoverings. The projects may vary, but a very personal aesthetic runs throughout.

XLR8R: What was the seedling of the idea for the chandeliers that you make?

Adam Wallacavage: I think it was the idea of creating the things I simply wanted. I've spent countless hours in my life scouring through flea markets and antique stores and decorative arts museums and I never had money to buy the things that inspired me. Or I felt this compulsive urge to acquire things that was kinda obsessive and not very good feeling. I basically realized that I had the talents to hand-make the things I wanted to see and it has been such a blessing to have gotten to the point of where I am now, where I feel I can have anything I can imagine, if I can figure out a way to make it.

How long does it take you to make one (approximately)?

At first it took a few months to build one, but after a while I learned to make them faster cause I knew what I was doing. I made most of the pieces in my show at the Jonathan Levine gallery, as well as the wallpaper, in three months.

What is your favorite thing that you have done/made recently?

I made a set of three chandeliers called "The Argus," "The Spawn of the Argus," and "Son of the Spawn of the Argus;" they are all glossy white and the large one has a sort of oval shape to it. I'm excited to hang the set in my living room after the show, as well as a few others. I'm really not sure what is my favorite though–they are like children in a way. I'm excited about the sconces though. I learned so much over the past couple years that I had a ton of fun making the chandeliers for my NYC show. I made the stuff with my house in mind, so I had a place to store them. I have a bunch of rooms in my house at the moment without lights in them and I can't wait to bring the show back to my place!

What are some of the most unique curios you have in your house?

I have a collection of mounted two-headed dogs, the world's longest cat tail that I got from an old sideshow, and a live fruit bat that I keep as a pet in my attic, but my favorite curio is my swimming pool. I live in an old Victorian brownstone in the city and my back yard is insanely tiny. I had a pool built that is eight feet in diameter but 25 feet deep. I use it to practice freediving and it is lined with cast coral and is stocked with fish. You can jump off the top of my house into it.

Really? That sounds amazing!

I know, but I made all that up, but it would be cool to own the world's longest cat tail, right?

What is your favorite themed room?

The only real themed room is the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea dining room; of course it is my favorite since it was the inspiration for the Octopus Chandelier. I'm working on some others though. The artist Niagara Detroit just stayed over last night and I want to make the guest bedroom into an opium den-themed room with custom-made wallpaper designed by Niagara. I just started an artist designed wallpaper company called Curio Wallcoverings and we are working with a bunch of different artists, such as Shepard Fairey and many others, to come.

Name two or three things that have inspired your general aesthetic.

I like things to be outrageous yet timeless, beautiful yet mysterious, and dark but inspired by a good sense of spirituality.

What is your favorite camera?

It doesn't exist yet, but it would be a digital panoramic waterproof camera that could take really close up wide shots of cool things.

How much of what you shoot is staged and how much is random accident?

I wait for things to happen, so the accident is somewhat luck and being in the right place at the right time, but I like to find the best angle and I like things to be as real as possible but surreal at the same time. Lately I've been doing a lot of portrait photography of artists in their studios and such. I would like to put out another book that is all artist related with portraits, studios, and shots of neat stuff hanging around.

What is important to you in a photograph?

I like them to be entertaining. I worked in a one-hour lab for a long time and I would look at hundreds of photos and I would put aside about one or two each day that were interesting. It was quite influential on my overall aesthetic, actually. Usually the photos that jumped out at me were shot by kids and they had the most amazing compositions. I think my friend Ben Woodward, who worked with me for a little while, had a name for it… something like “accidental snapshot masterpieces,” or something on those lines.

In contrast to what seems like a sort of hand-drawn, shambolic Space 1026 aesthetic, your work is so clean and sharp. Do you have any funny stories related to this contrast, or about having a studio there?

I would like to claim responsibility for the Space 1026 aesthetic in the beginning. When I first moved in there, I brought in my entire junk knick-knack collection and started hanging stuff up everywhere. I screwed taxidermy to the ceiling as well as my collections of vintage bicycles, skateboards, and old amusement park signs. I put up Christmas lights everywhere and made my studio out of old barn planks. Other Space members were not very happy and even Andrew Jeffery Wright would make fun of me for trying to make the place look like some corny themed chain restaurant like Bennigan's or something. I was thinking more on the lines of fun-house-art-freak-show. It turned into that in the end, and I'm proud. I moved out of Space 1026 when I bought my house, since it is big enough to hold a few different work studios. I was doing a lot to fix up the top floor of Space 1026 at the time but it felt unrewarding since we were just renting the place. Working on my house is really good feeling. I don't know about the “clean and sharp” part of my aesthetic though, since I'm terrible at paying attention to details. Maybe I'm just good at sweeping things under the rug.

What's one project you've never done because it's too crazy, expensive, or difficult, or you have no time?

I used to do a lot of silkscreens of toys back when I worked out of Space 1026 and I would love to get back to that sort of work, but with painting instead. I want to make paintings of silkscreen halftone separations in layers on glass and put them together. I think it would be fun.

What's the best thing in Philly?

Besides freedom and getting a shout out in that one Van Halen song, I would say City Hall. It is the most amazing building and is decorated with hundreds of beautiful sculptures designed by Alexander Milne Calder, who was the father of Alexander Stirling Calder, who was the father of Alexander Calder, the sculptor and inventor of the mobile. Of course my friends are the best part, it's amazing how many good artists are moving into town now.

What's your favorite food?

Potato chips and hot dogs, but I can't eat them too much 'cause they will kill me. I like spearfishing and grilling freshly caught fish at the beach.

Who are your style icons?

It sounds cliché, but I was really blown away as a child by the Haunted Mansion ride and the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Ride at Disney World. I just like the idea of making things that go on forever with endless imagination, never knowing if it's complete or what is around the corner. I just love all things eccentric.