post by Rachel Pastan
Alex Da Corte is standing in the gallery with what looks like a big, dripping piece of meat under his arm. It’s Monday, two days before the opening celebration of First Among Equals, the show he’s part of at ICA. He has the gallery to himself this morning as he installs his piece, SCENE TAKE SIX, which he describes as a two-sided painting.
To me, it looks more like an installation—or maybe a sculptural collage—with a wall down the middle dividing it in two. On one side, big, gray, framed pictures look as though they’re made of aluminum, riddled with bullet holes. A kind of reaper’s staff draped in zebra-hide cloth leans nearby, and in a vitrine a dark rattlesnake with a mouth like a cave full of crystals erects its glittering tail.
On the other side of the wall the colors are paler, brighter: pinks and corals and beiges.
“There’s a beautiful moment in Fantasia,” Alex says, “when a character pulls the sunset across the sky.” That’s the vision that animates this side, the light side, while the other is “Night on Bald Mountain.” As Alex says, “Both sides of the wall mirror each other formally, like a set for night and day.”
“Did you like Fantasia when you were a kid?”
“Oh, yeah, I loved it. I went to school to be an animator before I really knew what sculpture was.”
I ask him about the small sculpture he’s holding in his hand.
“This is a Sam Anderson piece. It’s called ‘Talent.’ She also did this bust of Aretha Franklin. And this is a Polly Apfelbaum piece.” He points to what look like pillowcases overflowing with bright raffia, explaining, “I’ve taken work from different artists and collaged it into my own.”
There is a lot of this kind of work—wheels within wheels—in First Among Equals, a show exploring how artists collaborate with peers and reach across generations. For his piece, Alex called up artists he admired and asked if he could use their work in his presentation—either an actual piece or a recreation. “Everyone was really open and generous, and that made me so happy,” he says. “I think any artists wouldn’t like to think that their work couldn’t change.”
One piece Alex wanted to recreate was Karen Kilimnik’s, “Whiteberry Nest,” which he first saw in ICA’s Kilimnik retrospective in 2007. That’s what he’s doing now, twisting branches into a nest, trying to get the shape right, small twigs breaking off and falling to the floor.
He explains that the pink and beige framed prints hanging on the wall on this side—the day side—make up a Kilimnik self-portrait he photocopied, enlarged, collaged together, framed in Ikea frames (plastic wrapping and all) and then painted over, “so it becomes analog again.” The framed pieces on the other side are parts of a Rory Mulligan self-portrait showing the artist with an egg in his mouth. The dark rattler with its sparkling jaws mimics Mulligan’s open mouth—an informal riffing and gesturing that is how many of these pieces relate to each other. The rattlesnake is a Da Corte, but Alex says, “It’s not mine any more, because it’s in a collection.” The question of what it means for a work of art to belong to someone is important to Alex. He calls the pieces he is assembling that include or allude to the work of other artists “dedication monuments.”
One of the most important dedication monuments here venerates Paul Thek, who turns out to be one of the presiding spirits of this piece—something I might have guessed earlier when I saw the faux, foam meat.
When Alex was in grad school, visitors to his studio were always telling him his pieces reminded them of Thek, whose work Alex had never seen. “So many people asked me about Paul Thek that I decided I’d never look at Paul Thek,” he says, smiling. But of course he did eventually. He agrees with those who saw something Theklike. “It’s about the disembodied body,” he says. “Looking at things that are beautiful but falling apart underneath. And a kind of cartoonyness to it.”
“I don’t use meat,” he adds, fetching a bunch of artificial greenery for his Kilimnik, “but I use flies.” It turns out a collector is lending a real Thek for SCENE TAKE SIX. “I’m happy that the first time I’ll be in contact with a Paul Thek will be here,” he says.
I look around the largely empty space. “Where is it?”
Alex sticks the greenery into his crown of branches. “It’s coming tomorrow,” he says, concentrating. “In an armored truck.”
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You can see SCENE TAKE SIX in First Among Equals at ICA through August 12.
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