Alex Da Corte offers unexpected gifts and visons in new exhibit at Mass MoCA


Photo Gallery | 'Free Roses' by Alex Da Corte

NORTH ADAMS — The world Alex Da Corte creates is almost as immersive as the actual world. It is created by the halo of neon lights overhead that give the galleries a glow, the new carpet underfoot like a suburban bedroom, the smell of oranges and cedar in the air. And all around, resting, floating, fluttering are objects culled from dollar stores, repurposed with care and attention into detailed constructions that explore not only consumer material culture, but what it means to be a human and alive among all these things that surround us.

"There are so many images and objects in the world, and to assume it is all cold plastic would be really dark for all of us," Da Corte said when reached by phone. To live in this world, you have to accept that "stuff is not going to stop," and to ask about what they mean.

"They are made by people," he said. "Touch is embedded in it. Decisions are embedded in it. These are ideas that are being shared."

The show, which officially opens at Mass MoCA on Saturday and runs through January, is called "Free Roses," as in an unexpected (though maybe tacky, maybe charming) gift. It begins with a new work, "Lightning," a collection of eight vivid tableaus that break down a suburban house.

Each scene bursts with references — scenes that recall moments from films like "Beetlejuice" and "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" and the opening credits of "The Simpsons." Others are harder to catch — a dog circling on an eternal loop that might refer to a small detail of the OJ trial — or plainly mysterious, like two swans holding candles circling each other in a pool while craning their necks toward one another.

Da Corte said his work is "not about decoding, it's about prompts."

"That's for me to begin," he said. "If you don't have the references, you're free to see it as it is."

Like anthropology or archaeology, it is about conjuring a snapshot of how people live, but remains an investigation, with the clarity of a new perspective.

"It's not about answers, just about propositions," he said. "It's hard to see the world as it is now because there's so much stuff."

For Da Corte, who is only in his mid-30s, the exhibit is a survey of what has earned him a reputation as an upcoming young artist. It was curated by MoCA's Curator of Visual Arts Susan Cross, who said the work speaks to a broad audience.

"What's nice about showing so much of his work at once is how the stories he's telling and the different pieces build on each other and help you understand his way of working," she said.

"There are classic themes of human experience. There's love and lust, desire and death."

Much of Da Corte's work could be considered the next generation in Pop Art in its exploration of the material world of American culture as pioneered by Andy Warhol, Wayne Thiebaud, and others. That appears in some formal elements of Da Corte's work, like a giant box of tissues that recalls Claes Oldenburg's outsized models of common things, and in his piece "As Is Wet Hoagie," an enormous fake sandwich on a pedestal held up by Coke cans. But while Warhol and his generation were exploring our new consumer reality, and some later varieties of Pop — like the glitzy, commercialized work of Jeff Koons — have a sense of irony and cynicism, Da Corte's interpretation describes how this is all part of our common humanity.

"He has a critical eye," Cross said. "He's definitely being complicated about the way he presents these consumer objects to us. There's celebration and anxiety in them. But he's not cynical; he's romantic."

That is a generous spirit. "It's everything," she said. "It's life digested through Alex's beautiful imagination, his sensitivity to color and detail. He notices everything. He's reminding us of the smell, and the angles, and the colors he's attuned to noticing."

That spirit comes through in a variety of ways and includes a number of collaborations — both immediate and post facto — with other artists.

Another major piece is "Easternsports" from 2014, a massive four-panel video installation with words by Jayson Musson and music by Dev Hynes. The meandering, bright, surreal three-hour-plus video loop that explores the process of how we try on identities and search for meaning.

Other ways are more static. In another room, Da Corte has created a piece around the long-standing Joseph Beuys' sculpture "Lightning with Stag in its Glare," turning a familiar fixture of MoCA's galleries into something bracingly unfamiliar.

And it is most clear in his breakthrough piece from 2010 on display here, "Chelsea Hotel No. 2," a three-minute film clip that shows a pair of hands engaged with a sequence of objects bought at a discount store — a loaf of sliced bread, soda, cherries, masking tape, bologna, food coloring, detergent. The hands engage in a sequence of gestures — breaking, mixing, binding, unbinding — all set to the doleful Leonard Cohen song, "Chelsea Hotel," about nostalgia for a lost moment of being a young artist.

Much of the work invites any number of meanings, which is fine with Da Corte. "I'm not interested in control or narrative," he said.

There's a big sense of place in his work. Da Corte grew up outside Philadelphia and spent some time with family in Venezuela which was a deep contrast. He grew up with a love for cinema, and an early desire to become an animator, and a sense of childhood wonder. He specifically mentioned the film "Goonies" as the spirit he remembers. "That kind of zeal for adventure was in my childhood," he said.

He attended the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and Yale for graduate school, and now still lives and works in Philadelphia, a place he described as very generous and pro-artist — a great place for a young artist to make a go of it.

"There's so much room for your mind to just be, and not be always pressured to meet some kind of deadline," he said, like paying rent on a studio or struggling to make ends meet. "If the thing you desire most is to work on your work, Philadelphia allows that."


What: "Free Roses"

Who: Neo-pop artist Alex Da Corte

Where: Mass MoCA, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams

When: Now through January. Opening reception — 5-6:30 p.m. Saturday

Gallery hours: Through June 24 — 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except Tuesday. Beginning June 25 — 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday

Admission: $18 adults; $16 veterans and seniors; $12 students; $8 children 6-16; free, members, and children 5 and under

Complete information: 413-662-2111;


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