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COSIMO CAVALLARO: SEEING THINGS
By Peter Frank
For decades a debate has simmered about theatricality in, and the theatricality of, artwork. Especially with regard to art in three dimensions, some commentators have decried qualities of description and enactment that clearly motivate the making of some sculpture and underlie the aesthetics of so much more. Art, such commentators insist, must be self-referential and contemplative, turned inward and leading the viewer inward as well. In these highly charged times, however, most artists (and commentators) tend to advocate for a more engaged kind of object, one that meets its audience half way and does so in order to deliver messages and change minds.
It would seem that Cosimo Cavallaro’s work in three (and arguably four) dimensions manifests exactly this kind of sociopolitical theater; its tone of provocation is unmistakable and its often jester-like irreverence can prove infectious. But, however theatrical Cavallaro can be in realizing his real-time presentations and even static pieces, and however many onlookers he might disturb with his dramatic set-ups, he is not promulgating a political message or even social viewpoint: he is manifesting a personal vision — or, more accurately, personal visions, as each performative action and sculptural series results from an epiphany of some kind, a realization that this form, this kind of subject, this proportioned thing HAS to exist. It is as if Cavallaro is not simply conceiving artworks, but channeling them.
There is no mystical process to this “channeling.” The basic concept and/or form for the work suddenly appears, in a dream or off-moment, and refuses to go away. It drives Cavallaro to investigate its nuances, to coax out its formal and conceptual subtleties, to investigate the best ways of fabricating it so that the integrity of the original inspiration is maintained but a set of variations, or a path of action, unfolds. The “vision” tells Cavallaro where to go, but not much about how to get there. The goal gives birth to the journey.
If Cavallaro is thus responsible for the journey, his work is about making that journey — even in the works that seem the most technically perfected and autonomous. In fact, working in series as he does, no object Cavallaro fashions is truly self-contained. Each maintains an aesthetic integrity, of course, a presence and even allure that defines it as an “artwork” per se. But each bean shape or arrow shape or distorted, distended section of a re-imagined cartoon character also presents another possible way of realizing Cavallaro’s initial concept. Each sculpture is a whole and a part of a greater whole, dramatic — yes, theatrical — in its self-containment and equally in its connection to its brethren.
Cavallaro all but gave up a successful career in commercial film and video to realize his artistic vision(s). But the filmic idea that images (and objects) speak louder — not to mention more elaborately — than words stuck with him. What he brought with him from Hollywood (or the Montréal equivalent) to the art world was a showman’s sense of theatrical gesture coupled with that visionary impulse, lucid and yet surreal, to the singular image-idea. In New York Cavallaro was able to realize several projects so outrageous — in different ways — as to brand him a media-worthy (and media-savvy) artist-provocateur. “Painting” hotel rooms with flung ketchup or cheese seemed to mock his own cultural heritage, both geographic (his Sicilian parentage) and artistic (Abstract Expressionism); My Sweet Lord, a life-size sculpture of a naked (but still crucified) Jesus fabricated from chocolate, was similarly regarded as an attack on his native religion. But, for all the fuss these pieces kicked up — and Cavallaro knew they would kick up — they are less protest than prank, and less prank than revelation, born of his tendency to fixate on a thing, idea, or idea of thing that his mind has birthed in one fell swoop.
There is nothing pure about this tendency; the things it fixates upon are very much “of this world,” whether they conjure simple signs or complex social phenomena. Thus, Cavallaro can work on a sequence of vinyl forms made from automobile airbags, a series of luminous Life Saver shapes, a roomful of looming black-and-white forms that (one gradually realizes) constitute a drawn-and-quartered Mickey Mouse — and a hand-assembled, free-standing wall, composed of so many bricks of cotija cheese, that just happens to be situated walking distance from California’s border with Mexico. No question but that this latter “vision” addresses latter-day American politics — but mockingly, endearingly, or poignantly? The dismembered Mouse also touches on American society both current and recent. You could even say that making huge Life Savers speaks to the American condition — as does making objects out of car parts. This is Pop Art reclaimed, brought back from the Pop Life and returned to the artist’s imagination.
Cosimo Cavallaro moved from New York to Los Angeles in order to be able to fabricate his various ideas — his visions — with maximum efficiency and technical purity. It is ironic that he has to come to the belly of the Hollywood — and American — beast to get as close as possible to the rarefied objects and actions his mind won’t stop formulating. But Cavallaro is no isolated aesthete, and his visions are not envisioned in a vacuum. The fantasies that find him are fantasies of a very contemporary reality, realized in very contemporary contexts. Cavallaro may be a dreamer, but his dreams are of the here and now.