Alex Da Corte @ Mass MoCA

The colorful work of the artist Alex Da Corte has the bursting presence and aesthetic immediacy of pop art, but it’s what lies underneath that matters.

Da Corte, who’s based in Philadelphia, has a new exhibition, “Free Roses,” that opened March 26 at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The show features a major new installation as well as a selection of works from the past 10 years, including Da Corte’s dedication monuments, plastic paintings, and CD paintings, which incorporate and reproduce consumer items into his creations.

“He uses items that you find at big-box stores or dollar stores, as well as his own sculptural facsimiles,” curator Susan Cross explained. “He’s really interested in the aspirations that are embedded in these objects. He almost looks at them as an anthropologist and what he can tell us about our time. They’re almost like time capsules.”

Da Corte’s CD paintings, which are included in the Mass MoCA show, take music that is meaningful to him and focuses in on the physical object that contained that music, expanding the covers once contained in jewel cases on large-scale printed fabric and altering this canvas to make it his own. The resulting works make a nostalgic connection to physical products, with the understanding that in the era of streaming sounds, music is no longer associated emotionally with a physical aspect and has become separated from our tactile memories.

Da Corte’s plastic paintings are achieved by placing physical products — such as Alberto VO5 bottles, faux tortoise-shell hangers, and plastic grapes — behind Plexiglas, alongside works by other artists. But Da Corte’s view of consumer items is not the standard one that’s become a trope in contemporary art. He’s more interested in what the objects mean to us, and how we let them help us create who we are.

Da Corte will also show three videos influenced by the work of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, and the exhibition includes a three-hour video installation collaboration with the artist Jayson Musson, inspired by the Thornton Wilder play “Our Town.”

Hell with a romantic aspect
Rimbaud’s work in particular is at the center of Da Corte’s art and is the direct influence for a new site-specific installation, “Lightning,” which is based on a chapter of Rimbaud’s 1873 poem “A Season In Hell.” Da Corte has already adapted the first six parts of that extended poem, and two more remain.

Da Corte said he came to Rimbaud by way of musician Patti Smith and a modern literature teacher from his time in New York City. He was entranced by the poet’s unconventional depiction of hell, which stressed a romantic side of it.

“Lightning” consists of multiple views of a house, scattered around the large gallery offering several vantage points, all unexpected.

“Imagine a home being struck by lightning and how that could break into many parts, what that would be,” Da Corte said. “These eight stages, or islands as I’ve been referring to them, live in a black box theater, or in this case, a purple box theater.”

Some of the views represent what you think of when you think of a house — the outside window overlooking a small yard, or the living room — while other parts, such as a giant tissue box, magnify the minutiae of a suburban living space. Each view of the house is set up on a purple wooden floor, with neon outlines of the space hanging above.

Da Corte styled the installation in layers, drawing on his background in animation. He wanted to replicate on a large scale the effect of the multiplane camera, which was used by Disney to film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” The camera was designed to create a three-dimensional effect by laying multiple animation cells on top of each other.

That’s exactly the sensation Da Corte sought. When you enter the installation, you are faced with a living room inspired by The Simpsons, with a cat-covered floor and food flying through the air, washed in neon yellow.

“Yellow light makes people anxious and fearful, so I begin the show with that fear,” Da Corte said.

As you move through the space, the colors change and segments of the house pull you further in. The first section is made up of smaller parts, but the scale of everything grows, magnifying the intimacy you feel with the displayed items until you are dwarfed by the giant tissue box. As in Da Corte’s other work, manufactured physical items play a role in defining the space of the art and our own lives.

“Rimbaud enters that poem with fear and lust and anger, and then it turns into violence and more lust and a dream space,” Da Corte explained. “This show proceeds in that way as well.”

At the end of the installation is the gallery containing Joseph Bueys’ sculpture “Lightning with Stag in Its Glare,” a mainstay of Mass MoCA. Da Corte decided to make this work part of his own, bathing it in green neon and adding it as one more layer, the final one, in his large-scale, multi-plane effect.

Underside of suburbia?
Cross said that while “Lightning” is adapted from a section of the Rimbaud poem, it is also fiercely personal, reflective of Da Corte’s own experiences in the suburbs. It’s a presentation that Cross likens to David Lynch or Todd Haynes.

“He’s unpacking the suburban upbringing of his own life, and many of our lives, and expressing the repressed,” she said, “finding the underbelly of that family life or suburban life, or just social convention, through familiar objects, but making them of different scale or the dialogue he creates with them.”

From Da Corte’s description, a lot of that suburban darkness comes from a dynamic with a straw man — “the Joneses,” the mythical family against which one’s own suburban existence is measured. Da Corte believes it’s a tortured struggle against a phantom.

“It’s a mentality that I grew up with,” he said. “It’s so much about things you don’t do — things about scandal, keeping a good face because that’s the right thing to do. I appreciate that, but it also creates a certain kind of mask that can be misleading, but not in a generative way but in a dark way. In the suburbs, masks are very common, putting the trash out nice and neat. It’s ‘What will the neighbors think?’”

Da Corte cautions, though, not to take his work as too entrenched in his personal experience. He’s much more interested in shared experiences, often through consumer items and even popular culture such as films. He acknowledges that movies can shape our psyche as much as personal experiences.

“Say I might have a fear of spiders,” he said. “You might share the same fear if you have ever seen ‘Arachnophobia.’ … Many people share personal experiences. They may not realize that, but we all may have some shared experience like a shared fear of Freddie Kruger or some experience with a bottle of Coca-Cola, and so I look to cinema largely, and supermarkets and other common grounds, to pull inspiration from.”

Da Corte said that even though he uses such references, he has no interest in irony. He said he’s drawn to sincerity, and any pop culture reference that he employs, any manufactured item he includes, is not done to comment on consumer culture but to examine the genuine emotions we cull from it. This might sometimes point to something unsavory in the suburban existence, but for Da Corte, that’s just an indication of the shared psychological space all suburbanites exist within.

“Some of the things in the show seem like they may be filled with horror or embedded with some kind of darkness, and I think people have asked if I had a really dark upbringing,” Da Corte said. “No, I didn’t have a dark upbringing at all. But I loved horror movies. I’ve seen ‘Psycho.’ It’s not darkness, it’s the temperature of the culture, the American suburban culture, that I’m responding to.”

Originally appeared in the Hill Country Observer.

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