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Expect the unexpected from local artist Alex Da Corte, whose solo exhibition The Street runs through March 10 at Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery, University of the Arts. Da Corte, born in Camden, New Jersey, in 1980, graduated from UArts and received his MFA from Yale University in 2010. He is now internationally famous for his brightly hued and clever work, meticulously produced in an unfettered range of media, including video, performance, sculpture, installation, and painting.
Da Corte’s art doesn’t fit into any particular genre. It looks like Pop Art, often featuring everyday objects, and it’s produced with the help of studio assistants. It’s Conceptual, yet flawlessly made. By recombining and distorting imagery and characters from high and low culture, mostly American, Da Corte produces art that appeals to contemporary art scholars, as well as people who simply want to enjoy it.
Wonder Bread, Snow White, and Warhol
The Street is an immersive installation of recent paintings, chock-full of references to comic-book characters, Sesame Street, Constantin Brancusi, Wonder Bread, Walt Disney’s Snow White, and many more. Entering the gallery, viewers are bombarded by saturated colors. The walls, doors, and even the gallery attendants’ desk are painted in different themes by Mural Arts Philadelphia program artists, UArts employees, and Da Corte’s studio assistants. At the entrance, graphics from Wonder Bread packaging are reproduced on a monumental scale. Across from the attendants’ desk, the names of makers and mural artists who assisted with the exhibition are listed on the wall.
Large-scale paintings, mostly made last year in a cornucopia of styles, punctuate the murals behind them. The styles and subjects of the paintings seem random, and many of the works depict fragments, leaving spaces where figures have been elided. One of the paintings, Anti-Hero (2022), is a geometric pattern in soft hues, a replication of a comic-book company’s pre-computer color scheme. Next to it, Mirror Marilyn (2022-2023) salutes Andy Warhol. Across the room, a sprawling four-panel piece depicts lamps floating ghostlike on a black background, referring to the windows of a local store.
The gallery’s cylindrical white columns, often incorporated by artists into their exhibitions in the space, have been bricked over by masons. A few synthetic bricks are scattered around their bases, and a leafy vine in neon-lit green adorns a column. Here and there, placard signs, the type we carry when we bring our protests to the street, lean against the walls. They’re colorful but devoid of text. For those looking for a little grunge in The Street, there isn’t any. Even the bricks are clean and nice.
The what and the why
We can see what Da Corte exhibits in The Street, but why is not immediately clear. And if we don’t care very much about the pop-culture references, what does it all mean? Over the gallery door, visible when you exit, is a piece of legible mural text: “Let’s talk.” About what? Da Corte’s The Street provokes us by leaving empty spaces we’re compelled to fill. Like the blank placards leaning against the walls, the show’s meaning requires our participation.
A clue can be found, literally, on the street. This show is autobiographical, revealing Da Corte as trying on different personas but ultimately alone. Outside the gallery, looking in through the three street-facing windows, is where the story actually begins. In the first window on the left is a photograph of a child (not Da Corte himself but a family member) intently spilling multicolored lollipops onto a table. Although it’s not listed as an artwork, the image represents the show in exhibition announcements. The second window offers a look into the gallery. The third window houses a neon work, Double Rainbow (2022).
Brightness in the dark
The exhibition checklist at the attendants’ desk, easy to overlook when first encountering the show, offers more clues. Artworks’ titles include The Last House on The Left (2022), Alex Sings the Blues (2022), The Mourning Bell (2022), and Death Spiral (2022). An enormous trove of self-reflection, depth, and heart is refracted beneath the shiny surfaces. Identity, struggle against repression, and a dire reckoning with mortality: these are dark concepts wrapped in pretty colors.
Hinge (2022) offers hope; and both the painting and the mural behind it are black and white, setting them apart from the rest of The Street. In a how-to diagram for window installation, an arrow has been altered to defy perspective and escape circumstance. The mural behind it is a jumble of giant numbers, scored with blank lines like the output of a faulty printer. Like a body marked by trauma, but alive.
Da Corte’s artistic practice often involves appropriating and exploring others’ identities. With The Street, he invites us to travel alongside him, to experience his identity. It’s a moving journey.
What, When, Where
The Street. By Alex Da Corte. Through March 10, 2023, at Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery at University of the Arts, 333 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Free. (215) 717-6480 or uarts.edu.
Masks are optional. The gallery is barrier-free except for three steps leading to a space in the back, where Hinge and a diptych are installed.
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