Philly artist Adam Wallacavage brings his ‘jungle of ornament’ to Center City gallery

HOT•BED gallery in Center City showing sculptures from Adam Wallacavage

HOT•BED gallery in Center City is hosting a rare solo exhibition of the works of Adam Wallacavage. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Adam Wallacavage’s sculptural art lives in a space between Victorian ornament and mid-century modern kitsch.

He can actually pinpoint on a map where that space is.

“My style is Wildwood boardwalk and ‘50s motels mixed with Victorian Cape May,” said Wallacavage, who grew up at his family’s beach house in Wildwood Crest. “I love Cape May inlet. I go diving and fishing — I’ve been going there since I was a kid. It’s like the dividing point between Cape May … and Wildwood ‘50s. I never put that together until last summer.”

Adam Wallacavage sits in the HOT BED gallery, where his work is displayed in a setting that is part-greenhouse, part-living room. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Wallacavage’s influences draw equally from the highly decorative illustrations of Maxfield Parrish and the gaudy tableaus of Whacky Shack, a now-defunct boardwalk dark ride on Wildwood’s old Hunt’s Pier. He is best known for his octopus chandeliers, which are candy-colored nautical figures with curvy tentacles holding lightbulbs. He also makes chandeliers in shapes of snakes and spiders.

He’s a collector of curios: taxidermy, plastic masks, stained glass, figurine lamps, Victorian lampshades. “I’m not a hoarder,” he said. “I know what I’m doing with it, so I’m not a hoarder.”

Adam Wallacavage often works with found objects. In this caser, he rehabilitated an oil rain lamp and filled it with colorful mushrooms. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Wallacavage says he spends much of his time working on commissions — his works have been snapped up by people like Fred Armisen and Clown from the band Slipknot — and has not had a solo show in at least a few years. His exhibition “After Forever” at the Center City gallery HOT•BED features work from the past, present, and future: Every week Wallacavage plans to add new pieces to the show as he finishes them. The show will change every week.

On one wall is a nine-foot marlin, a taxidermied fish he bought many years ago and “dragged it from apartment to apartment until I got my house,” said Wallacavage. Over the years, the nose of the marlin snapped off and most of its dorsal fin was lost. He re-created the nose as a narwhal horn and regenerated the missing fin with paste and epoxy. It’s now on a white wall, leaping toward a deep green Monstera “swiss cheese” plant.

Sculptured lamps by Adam Wallacavage are on exhibit at HOT•BED gallery in Center City. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“I’ve been making alien jellypus: like a jellyfish octopus,” he said. “Who knows, it might exist in our ocean and we don’t even know. I’m not particular about being realistic.”

The venue is owned by Bryan Hoffman, who also owns a company that provides horticulture and interior design services to hotel lobbies and corporate offices. Thusly, HOT•BED is as much a showcase for plants and furniture as it is for art. The space is filled with large potted palms, monumentally-sized Monsteras, and a floor-to-ceiling green wall of tropical Alocasia amazonica (also known as elephant ear or African mask).

HOT•BED gallery founder Bryan Hoffman creates exhibition spaces that are part greenhouse, part living room. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“Adam was very clear that he wanted to showcase his work amongst plants. When he proposed that, we thought it was right up our alley,” Hoffman said. “Adam really loves plants. He really wanted to see horticulture worked into these fantasy vignettes.”

HOT•BED is located right above Morimoto restaurant, and Hoffman said they’re working with the business to have them encourage their outdoor dining guests to check out the gallery while they wait for their table.

“There’s not much else to do,” Hoffman said. “It’s an opportunity to be in a different space.”

Wallacavage’s artwork and his gardening are both rooted in his home. He bought a brownstone on South Broad Street in 2000, and has spent the last 20 years restoring it. What he couldn’t restore, he re-imagined: right now he is building a grotto with seashells and stained glass. His famous octopus chandeliers came out of a nautical remodeling project to create what he calls the Jules Verne room.

He is also building a greenhouse right now, to better care for his beloved plants.

“There have been some passion flowers I’ve been trying to grow,” he said. “I got two blooms for the first time in five years. Just when they’re about to go, it gets too cold. So, I need an extended growing season.”

Wallacavage said his house is his sketchbook. He can work out ideas and techniques for his highly ornamental style and interior designs. If it doesn’t work out, no big deal. He can change it.

Or, not: He often keeps the imperfections. The plants and the art coexist in an organic “jungle of ornament.”

“I want to encourage people to get more into things from the past, ornamental plasterwork and decorative arts. It’s fun. It’s not as hard as it looks,” he said. “Modernism is harder because it has to be cleaner with more perfection. I’m not like that.”

The show opened on Dec. 18 and runs until March 6, 2021. It is open by appointment and for limited walk-ins.

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