A hand with fingerless gloves reaching out to a hand with dried paint on it

Alex Da Corte, Chelsea Hotel no. 2, 2010

Alex Da Corte, Chelsea Hotel no. 2, 2010

HD digital video
03:04 min., color, sound
Courtesy of the artist

Although born in Camden, New Jersey, in 1980, Alex Da Corte spent his early youth in his father’s birthplace, Venezuela. His family moved back to the United States when he was eight years old, but Da Corte still remembers the food, colors, and cultural symbols of his childhood. Many of these aspects continue to influence his artistic practice, which began with the goal of working as a Disney animator. However, after discovering contemporary art in New York, Da Corte had a change of plans.

He attended the University of the Arts, Philadelphia, where he received his BFA in printmaking/fine arts and he earned an MFA in sculpture from Yale University in 2010. Since then, Da Corte has had solo shows at several venues, including the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia; Institute of Contemporary Art, Maine College of Art, Portland; Gio Marconi, Milan; Luxembourg & Dayan Gallery, New York; and White Cube, London. His work has also been shown in numerous group exhibitions in venues that include the Museum of Modem Art, New York; MoMA PS1, New York; the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York;; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; and Musée des Beaux-Arts Montreal..

Beyond his Venezuelan childhood, Da Corte’s art recalls a range of other influences, such as Pop art, abstraction, Surrealism, French Symbolist poetry, classical religious art, and modern design. Several critics also have compared Da Corte’s work to that of Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Paul McCarthy, and Claes Oldenburg largely because of his interest in the materiality and symbolism of objects, particularly banal items and domestic products. For instance, in 2010, he began a series of paintings, which includes Kiwi Lavender (2012) and Untitled (Ocean Splash) (2012), in which he poured discount shampoos onto sheets of glass, leaving the tinted sludge to find its own way across the surfaces.

Da Corte's works often mash up or juxtapose his objects in unexpected and exciting, yet rigorous ways. Found in supermarkets, flea markets, and dollar stores, his media include soda bottles, rubber balls, folding chairs, and household cleaning supplies. Sometimes they are meticulously arranged on tabletops, as in Brown and Mercer (2013), which presents a Jelly Belly Tutti Frutti air freshener, rubber Disney princess dresses, laptop computer shelf, rubber snake, Freddy Krueger glove, and plastic strawberry, among other items, atop two sawhorses. Untitled (Buffet) (2012) also uses sawhorses to display picture frames, plastic grapes, a Whiffle ball bat, and hair rollers. These sculptural pieces read like time capsules, yet they contain items of our current culture that typically would not be preserved for future generations.

In fact, for his art, Da Corte gravitates toward objects that in his words, "he doesn't understand or doesn't like." They present a challenge for him to investigate how others find pleasure in their forms. Da Corte also understands “objects as stand-ins for people … [and] another kind of language.” In many ways, the self is formed through the commodities it desires. However, instead of lampooning this process, Da Corte wrestles with these mundane items in an effort to draw out their underlying aesthetic, expressive dimensions. In his view, “fantasy is present and available in all forms of imagery.” Thus, he aims to present “the weird, erotic and aspirational symbols they [everyday items] have the potential to be.”

Often these symbols are displayed in jarring, immersive environments of neon-bright lights, mirrored walls, and acid-hued structures. Da Corte’s Lightning installation is particularly affective as it references the hallucinatory sensation described in Arthur Rimbaud's prose poem A Season in Hell. The work features two plastic swans circling a splashing pool of pink water while balancing electric candles on their heads; a stuffed dog (resembling the one that found the murdered body of Nicole Brown Simpson) gliding around a circular track; and two mannequin arms passing through the facade of a pink house, behind which yellow tennis balls are scattered on a green carpet. All of these familiar objects staged in uncanny scenarios glow from the variously colored, square-shaped neon lights positioned above.

Other inspirations for Da Corte’s installations include Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. In 2014, he collaborated with artist Jayson Musson to create Easternsports, a four-screen video piece he describes as “a three-hour kaleidoscopic video-cum-telenovela…focus[ing] on archetypes in popular culture—and poking holes in the symbols associated with them.” They reimagine the classic drama with a poetic, comical script, brightly colored sets, and strange costumes in which the actors “perform their desired lifestyles.”

Da Corte also found inspiration in the music of Leonard Cohen, specifically the 1974 song “Chelsea Hotel #2,” after which Da Corte named his breakthrough video of 2010. Filmed on a cellphone, Chelsea Hotel No. 2 takes place in front of a white backdrop that sets off the vibrant colors of the random objects and foodstuffs Da Corte manipulates in front of the camera. His hands—covered in flour, ground coffee, and sequins, packing tape or aluminum foil—enter and exit the frame to delicately perform a series of bizarre tasks. Among other acts, he stacks and presses down slices of white bread; squeezes purple dish soap into a neon green hamper; peels a banana with a gold hoop hanging from one end; rolls a calla lily into green bubble wrap; cuts a slice of bologna with large, rusty scissors; and paints unripe cherries with red nail polish. We also witness a gilded head of lettuce sprouting a rose positioned on top of an overturned yellow basket as well as the falls of a standing broom and a blue chair as one of its legs is pulled out from under it.

Remarkably, the work developed from a particularly low point in Da Corte’s life. Soon after his car had been stolen with his computer, clothes, and studio notes inside, he found some solace shopping for cheap foods and plastic products in a generic supermarket. The objects would become the props of the three-minute video that speaks to doubt, desire, and sadness with incredible sensuality. As Cohen softly sings, “I need you…. I don’t need you,” Chelsea Hotel No. 2 epitomizes Da Corte’s practice of expressing the self in, and exploring the aesthetics of, objects. From a moment of loss and despair, he generates symbols of pathos, but also a sense of hope in the beautiful repurposing of the mundane. —Kanitra Fletcher