"That's corn syrup, by the way," the artist Alex Da Corte said, stepping around the goopy black puddle outside of his studio, a vast windowed room tucked into the corner of a former candy factory in North Philadelphia. Leaky ceilings notwithstanding, it’s hard to believe he’s the four-story building’s sole current occupant – but if anyone needs the space, it’s Da Corte, who specializes in multimedia installations filled to the brim with props, sets, and found objects.
The room’s current crop of bric-a-brac – plastic lawn candy canes, fake food ranging from asparagus spears to donuts, a 2002 Rolling Stone with Eminem on the cover, a miniature light-up barbecue, and a single orange Nike sneaker – is just a sampling of what Da Corte usually has on hand, as his last two projects have left the inventory a bit depleted. MASS MoCA has claimed most of his carpets, props, and neon lights for “Free Roses,” a massive show covering his last ten years of work that’s up until next January; and “Free Money,” the project that’s been occupying most of his time lately, was too large even for Da Corte’s personal factory, so its production was outsourced to L.A. Going up over the New York City skyline on Wednesday, it's a massive parade float for Frieze Projects, the art fair’s installation series, which greets both fairgoers on Randall's Island and faraway onlookers with a gargantuan crying baby.
The balloon originally came from Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, "but this happens to be a replica of a replica,” Da Corte explained, adding that the French artist Philippe Parreno first reconstructed the inflatable infant for a tight gallery space in 1993. Da Corte, on the other hand, has “released it from the white cube” and put it into the wild, essentially turning New York into Gotham. “It kind of proposes that the spectacle of the fair and the spectacle of the film have some kind of kinship,” he said – meaning that the buying and selling of art at the fair isn’t too far off from the greed that was preyed upon by the Joker, who lured people in with the promise of free dollar bills while actually dropping poisonous gas.
“It’s a bit of a cheeky gesture, for sure, but it just kind of pokes fun at the charade,” he admitted. Still, Cecilia Alemani, the curator of Frieze Projects, hardly regrets giving him carte blanche: “You know, babies, even if they make the scariest faces, they're not that scary,” she said with a laugh.
It’s the type of naughtiness that makes it obvious why Da Corte has been called the heir to Pop art, a title he earned back when he was getting his MFA at Yale, and which clearly still causes him some discomfort. But while Da Corte admits to sharing the same radicality and propensity for “upping the punx,” to him, those days are long gone: “The concerns of art now are different than what Pop’s concerns were,” he said. “We have a better understanding of what the backside of an image looks like. The curtains have been pulled back, and we’ve considered both the front and the backside of things, so it’s more about weighing in on what defines the middle.”
It’s the undefined spaces that interest Da Corte, who has chosen to work in his “kind of gritty” studio in the Juniata neighborhood for the last four years. He happens to like the periphery. “It just broadens the conversation about where art can be and where it can exist,” he said. The relationship is reciprocal: “Thinking about class and class structures – in my community, economic concerns are unavoidable, so they just go into the work.”
Da Corte picks up many of the objects that go into his work from nearby stores, particularly the sidewalk sale across the street, which sets up every weekend outside of a strip mall that’s home to both a church and a nightclub. He grew up not too far from Juniata, in Camden, and his parents, sister, brothers, and even nieces and nephews all live minutes from his studio. “I’m very close with family, and I make a lot of my work in relationship to them,” he said.
Surprisingly, he insists that the giant Batman baby is as personal as the rest of his work: “All of my work is related to film and how our desires are shaped by the things we see on TV, and how we aspire in some ways to access the things that we desire, or to break through the screen,” he said. “So to make a prop from a film that I admire greatly is like meeting the person of my dreams.”
He's meeting his heroes, too: His upcoming exhibit at the Herning Museum in Denmark works with Andy Warhol’s entire set of wigs, plus personal belongings like his Aunt Jemima salt and pepper shakers. And his first solo exhibit in L.A., up next month at the Hammer Museum's Art + Practice space, is a further examination of the nine-part poem Arthur Rimbaud wrote when he was 19, which for Da Corte, evokes that “wild and hot” period of being in your twenties. A Season in Hell has been a rich source for his art, but it's quickly becoming apparent that for Da Corte, any object reads like a text.
The artist, who’s a youthful 35, played with his fraying green baseball cap as he took a moment to reflect. His eyes landed on my feet. “It’s funny, because you know I look at your shoes, which are great, but who was the person who desired those? Where did they come from originally, and what aspect of you picked them out and then chose to revisit them today?” he asked.
“I have socks on today that look like a Gauguin painting, or a mix between a Gauguin and a Rousseau," he continued. "And my friend is going to the Philadelphia Art Museum, and maybe subconsciously I put these socks on because of that. I don’t know, that's somehow the way I shape my work.”