In April, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) opened a vibrant multi-part installation and survey of works from the Philadelphia-based artist Alex Da Corte. Titled Free Roses, the show is a dark, comical, and sinister spectacle that highlights the opulence of kitsch objects. Mediums on display include paintings, sculptures, videos, and photography within a palatial environment of plush carpeting, mirror-striped floors, and multi-hued neon lighting. Rarely do the works within a museum exceed the sum of their own parts and generate a surplus environment in the way Free Roses accomplishes.
Da Corte is an artist within the tradition of pop and surrealism known for frequently collaborating with and borrowing the work of artists to remix objects and environments to represent mass consumer culture. While themes of anxiety, the uncanny, and the everyday dominate the individual works, the subject of the Free Roses show is actually architecture. Recent projects by Da Corte have been immersive installations that play with the malleability of time, the fluidity of space, and the design of cinematic narratives as an invisible and plastic architecture. Free Roses continues within this trajectory and presents a cinematic and spatial mise-en-scène that, more than any other recent contemporary show, brings questions and conversations about the relationship between art, architecture, site, and installation to the forefront.
Such a conversation may have been drowned by the recent seemingly nonstop announcements of museum expansions. Mass MoCA is no exception; a campus in the former factory town of North Adams, the museum has been expanding for 25 years. Recently it announced the rehabilitation and renovation of a factory building, led by the firm Bruner/Cott, that will bring an additional 120,000 square feet of gallery space. The plans include a long-term installation of immersive light environments by artist James Turell. However, unlike the vast contemplative empty spaces of a Turell work, Free Roses is a transportive, neon-lit fantasy world loaded with cultural signifiers, reminiscent of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s descriptions of the Las Vegas strip.
New work from Da Corte, in the form of a sprawling ensemble, is the centerpiece of Free Roses and is presented as a sequence of sculptural tableaux and amalgams of spatialized memories. Set within eight zones, framed by a floored square parcels and hanging square neon lights, the viewer is free to walk in-between and around the taut environment of literal free-floating signifiers. Titled Lightning, the installation is a reference to the Joseph Beuys sculpture Lightning with Stag in its Glare, which is on long-term view at Mass MoCA. Inspiration for the elements of Lighting are taken from a mixture of experience in a suburban home and films such as Singin’ in the Rain, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Beetlejuice and A Clockwork Orange. All together, the work presents the idea of a modern home and its inhabitant’s mind deconstructed and made undone, both literally and figuratively. The first tableau is of a house with only a freestanding facade. The seven surrounding pieces are hazy memories of life within its interior: plastic swans circling in a pool of pink water, a giant tissue box, a stuffed-dog walking in an infinite loop, an oversized Coca-Cola can, and an off-scale pool table, among others. These neon plastic and camp works leave a nightmarish impression of memories turned sequenced film stills.
Da Corte skillfully manipulates the familiar to produce a sense of jamais vu, the uncanny feeling that something seen many times before is suddenly strange and unfamiliar. Free Roses additionally includes important past works from the 35-year-old artist’s growing portfolio. Easternsports is a four-channel video installation projected on four monumental freestanding walls that envelop viewers into the three-hour long video piece. The interiors and architecture within the piece are uncanny and nearly disturbing in symmetry, pattern, and color—all of which spill out into the gallery space containing the piece. This vibe permeates through both the work and the gallery, creating a fluidity of space and malleability of time that persists through Free Roses.
When speaking about his work in relation to architecture, Da Corte said in Interview Magazine: “It’s something else that’s about making a space vibrate in terms of strange energies or something in the room. You have to physically build that into a space, but then it has to recede.”
The final tableau of Lightning is a sculptural rendition of the iconic ending to the Looney Tunes cartoons, but with the “That’s all Folks!” missing. As it naturally should, the spatial-cinematic show continues with Scene 2. The culmination of Free Roses is the aforementioned Lightning—it is one of the most theatrical installations and one that depicts a natural and primordial scene within the arrangement of its elements. Scene 2 builds on the theatrics and contributes green fluorescent lights, carpeting, essential pine oils for scent, and an ambient soundtrack by the musician Dev Hynes, and in doing so casts all new meanings onto Beuys’s work. With Free Roses Da Corte masterfully blurs the distinction between art and architecture with a formless cinematic aesthetic.
Free Roses is open at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art through January 2017.