Alex Da Corte, Puppet Master

Alex Da Corte planned to become an animator for Disney until he determined that he lacked the chops. Still, he never truly abandoned his youthful dream. “It wasn’t until I went to school that I thought, ‘I’m not a good animator,’” he told me. “I couldn’t draw very well. It was a winding road to figure out what telling stories through cartoons might be for me.” The spirit of Walt hovers over the Day-Glo hues of Da Corte’s installations, the adorability of his Muppet figures and the gentle empathy of his video impersonations of characters as divergent as Fred Rogers and Eminem. He once constructed a sculpture of a rampant viper with scales that were brightly colored artificial fingernails. He has a penchant for transmuting anger and danger into cartoon jokiness. His art soothes.


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“You can take pain or fear or sadness and turn it into something new,” he said in his northeast Philadelphia studio, a vast space flooded with light through industrial casement windows, where he directs half a dozen assistants to craft costumes, props, puppets, masks and whatever else is needed for his videos and sculptures. His attitude of determined optimism made him an inspired choice to construct this year’s rooftop installation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was unveiled in April, soon after the yearlong pandemic lockdown eased up. “It was a really sad time and a really sad year,” he said. “I keep thinking of it as four seasons in hell.”

“As Long as the Sun Lasts,” the roof showstopper, is a 26-foot-tall sculptural mash-up of Alexander Calder and Jim Henson. On top of a towering trapezoidal steel base, which is painted Calder Red — the vermilion that Calder used for his stabile “Flamingo” (1974) in Chicago’s Federal Plaza — but textured to resemble the snap-together plastic pieces of Little Tikes toys, Da Corte attached a vertical spindle supporting a tilted horizontal armature that bears on one side five brightly colored discs (a nod to Calder’s modernism) and, on the other, a blue version of “Sesame Street”’s Big Bird, who is seated on a crescent moon holding a short ladder (a fond wink at childhood). “I wanted the work to be hopeful or look forward, look beyond that exquisite pain,” he said.

At 40, Da Corte is a prominent artist of his generation. He is representative in how he mines and recombines the ubiquitous imagery of contemporary life but, in many ways, his career path has been exceptional. For one thing, despite earning his M.F.A. at Yale in 2010, he maintained his roots in his native ground of Philadelphia, working as a painter’s assistant and placing work in group shows there before skyrocketing. In 2012, he had exhibitions in New York, Paris, Dublin and Palma de Mallorca, Spain. “It’s exciting that he can live in Philadelphia and be seen all over the world,” said Sid Sachs, the director of exhibitions and chief curator at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. “I’m just amazed by him. It’s a different model of an artist. At one time, you got into a gallery like Castelli or Paula Cooper and they guided your career. But Alex just bops around from gallery to gallery.” And he does it without presenting an identifiable, branded persona as an artist-celebrity. Indeed, it is fitting that one of his favorite characters to impersonate is the Wicked Witch of the West, played by Margaret Hamilton in “The Wizard of Oz,” because Da Corte himself bears comparison to the Wizard, hiding behind a curtain, exposing himself only in multiple disguises.

Having seen him only in his video incarnations, I felt a little like Dorothy encountering this tall, thin, dark-haired unassuming fellow with a soft, low-pitched voice and a shy, courteous demeanor — because, like the Wizard, his reputation is not as modest as his persona. “He’s one of the best working today,” said Jamillah James, the senior curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, who has known him since 2008. “He’s maturing as an artist, refining his visual language, providing some alternatives to the horror of today with work that has some lightness to it.”

The unrelenting lightness puzzled me when I tried to understand how Da Corte relates to the older artists he admires. Unlike the abject, scary or kinky stuffed animals of Mike Kelley, which are so smeared and grubby that you would hesitate to touch them, his puppets are endearingly cute and cuddle-worthy. His neon figurative artworks inevitably bring to mind those of Bruce Nauman, whose blinking neon pieces of 1985 transformed clowns into aggressively sexual beings brandishing hefty penises; Da Corte, in three neon creations currently on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, performs a reverse alchemy, muting scenes of violence and disaster — a burning house, a pistol, a trapped cat — into tranquil, formally beautiful designs. And in contrast to Paul McCarthy, who dirties the Disneyfied purity of Snow White and plunges her into orgies of sexual perversion, Da Corte’s fantasies unfold in a thoroughly G-rated domain. More than these artists whom he takes after stylistically, Da Corte reminds me of Takashi Murakami and his protégés in the production company Kaikai Kiki — taking nightmares (for Murakami, most notably, the atomic bombing of Japan) and flattening them into cheerful, post-ironic cartoon imagery.

In the videos that constitute the major portion of his output, Da Corte often takes a malignant character and, through impersonation, drains out the venom and replaces it with more sympathetic humors. Michael Myers, the white-masked slasher of the “Halloween” movies, was his first such venture. More recently, in gallery shows and videos, he has embodied Eminem, inspired originally by a friend’s mistaking a photograph of the macho rapper, famous for his rage, with mild-mannered Alex, whom he somewhat resembles. Da Corte dyed his hair blond and put on an oversize white T-shirt, assuming the persona. “When I was growing up, he was celebrated, and I thought, ‘That person is not for me, he scares me,’” Da Corte said. “Being Hispanic and gay, I thought his language seemed threatening. I wondered about the realm of people who loved his work and the violence, and what that’s about. If you embody his skin, do you become just as angry, just as white, just as straight, or is it the other way around?” He continued, “I think it’s about trying to find forgiveness.”

Born in Camden, N.J., Da Corte is the son of an upper-middle-class Venezuelan father and a white mother from a working-class family in the Philadelphia suburbs. When he was 4, the family moved back to Caracas, where his paternal grandfather owned grocery stores, but they returned to the United States when Da Corte was 8, where his father took a job in finance. The artist is no longer fluent in Spanish. “I’ll look at old videos and I’m speaking Spanish, and it’s like another person,” he said. Of course, he is accustomed to seeing himself in videos as another person.

He spent his later childhood and adolescence in Gloucester City, N.J., a blue-collar town near Philadelphia. “I grew up Catholic, and studied so much of that way of understanding the world,” he said. “It is through transformation of materials and a kind of body as offering or object. I think of the Lives of the Saints — plates with eyeballs on them. So much of the iconography or interest in dismembered bodies seeps into the work.” A carefully edited self-presentation is second nature to him. “There is that code-switching that any person who has been marginalized knows, so you don’t get bullied,” he said. “You long to fit in if you’re someone who’s been bullied. You recognize when you’re wearing a pink bandanna or a purple bandanna or a backward cap or an untucked shirt, that means something.”

With an earnest affability, Da Corte gives the impression of a man who is keeping his emotions under tight control. He is very private. When I asked him the unavoidable follow-up question — “Were you bullied as a child?” — his eyes misted over. “I don’t want to talk about that,” he said. Sachs has known Da Corte since he transferred to the University of the Arts two decades ago, following his frustrating studies in animation at the School of Visual Arts in New York. “I’ve been to his studio, I’ve had meals with him, but I don’t know his personal life,” Sachs said. “He’s like a poker player. I don’t think he reveals himself.”

Da Corte says he is closest to his large family, which on his mother’s side includes many house painters and carpenters. “I’ve always used my family as the audience I want for my work,” he said. “It’s a way of connecting with them and talking about difficult ideas. I’ve always wanted the work to appeal to so many people, and not to alienate.” He appropriates elements of high and low culture with equal affection. “With Alex, it is about the confirmation of the object through personal associations and attachment,” said Shanay Jhaveri, an assistant curator of international art at the Met, who worked with him closely on “As Long as the Sun Lasts.” “That’s where the feeling in the work comes from. It’s an appropriation that comes out of attachment.”

To my mind, his art is strongest when some pain seeps through and the wound is visible beneath the Band-Aid. His earliest video, “Carry That Weight” (2003), named for the Beatles song, shows him lurching down a city street, clutching a soft sculpture of a ketchup bottle that is as tall as he is. While it alludes specifically to a 1966 photograph of Claes Oldenburg struggling with a giant toothpaste tube in London, the work also unmistakably evokes Jesus carrying the weight of the cross. Staggering under his burden, Da Corte is funny and touching at the same time.

In “Slow Graffiti” (2017), a weird, campy and poignant video, he recreated shot by shot Jorgen Leth’s short film “The Perfect Human” of 50 years before, a Danish mock-documentary that examines an elegant man and woman through the lens of a narrator with the dispassionate tone of a zoologist. “Slow Graffiti” replaces the heterosexual couple with a tortured Boris Karloff and the lonely Frankenstein’s monster he embodied, both played by Alex. His frame-by-frame reconstruction is comparable to the painstaking efforts of old-school animators. “You’re looking into the hours it took, the labor to make it and the labor of looking,” he said. “And you’re looking into your own heart. There’s a kind of joy in it.” A similar transubstantiation takes place when he impersonates Eminem, Jim Henson or the Wicked Witch of the West. “Dressing up as Eminem is the cartoon stand-in for him, or it’s a cartoon stand-in for Jim Henson,” he said. “It’s different from acting. It’s more like a visual replication of the person. That yields a difference in one’s own self, the way you literally move in the world.” He explained: “It’s like walking in someone else’s high heels. It makes for new ways of seeing the world and understanding the world.”

Along with “Free Roses,” a massive remix of his work that was staged in 2016 at Mass MoCA, Da Corte’s most ambitious project to date was his installation at the 2018 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh. Characteristically, he riffed on two beloved icons associated with that city: Fred Rogers, who lived very near the grounds of the exhibition’s setting at the Carnegie Museum of Art, and Heinz ketchup. Through happy coincidence, it was the 57th Carnegie International, encouraging Da Corte to exploit the Heinz slogan, “57 Varieties,” and produce a video over two and a half hours long, “Rubber Pencil Devil,” that contains 57 segments.

Contrasting in length and tone, some of the 57 episodes are saccharine, such as an interminable impersonation of Mister Rogers changing back and forth between dress shoes and navy blue sneakers. But others are edgier: Da Corte as a devilish weatherman, gleefully slapping fire symbols across a map of the United States or dancing orgiastically with a serpentlike yellow pencil; Da Corte as a ballet dancer in a Robin Hood outfit, sniffing and licking the shoe of his dance partner; a pretty, smiling blond woman emasculating the antenna of a telephone with a large knife; the eye of a corpse with a happy face on its iris; and, most memorably, Da Corte cavorting as Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in the Rain” to the tune of Dolly Parton crooning “I can see the light of a clear blue morning” while the rain keeps pouring down and, finally, after a pratfall, he lies motionless on the ground.

For the Carnegie International, Da Corte used saturated lime greens, pinks and purples to construct a neon-lit version of the Mister Rogers set, which visitors entered through a large mouse hole in a sealed-up wall, reminiscent of the peephole viewing point of Marcel Duchamp’s scabrous “Étant Donnés” (1946-66), a treasure of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He blends in high-art references discreetly. And if you don’t pick up on the loftier allusions (for example, the wings of a butterfly in one video segment are patterned after a Frank Stella protractor painting), what you don’t know won’t bother you. “In one video, there’s Sylvester the Cat and in another, the Irish artist Michael Craig-Martin is referenced,” said Ingrid Schaffner, who curated that year’s Carnegie International. Now the curator at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, Schaffner for many years worked at the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art, where she championed Da Corte’s work. “For me, Alex’s multiplicity of references is part of network culture, the way we’re a culture of image readers,” she said. “I don’t find much irony in Alex’s work. He genuinely loves the things that he loves, and he wants you to love them, too.” As Sachs observes: “He’s not a minimalist. He’s the exact opposite. He’s layering stuff. He’s always looking for connections.”

Walking me through the studio, Da Corte pointed out the motley group of things that, for various reasons, appealed to him. A “fiber area,” stocked with cloth and yarn, was the birthing place for puppets. “We’re never not making Muppets,” he said. “Something about the simplicity of their initial structures has stood the test of time.” Elsewhere there was a toy ladder, like the one in the Met rooftop sculpture. He related his fascination with ladders to his love of early Buster Keaton movies, and to his cousins’ labor as house painters. A bulletin board held many images he’d clipped from periodicals or plucked from the internet. A marathon runner in a green rotary telephone costume was a particular favorite; Da Corte was pondering how he might use that idea. Some of the props needed a space this large to house them: a small gaggle of goose decoys, for example. “I like the velvet of them, the way they’re flocked,” he said. He plans to incorporate a 12-foot-tall fake human skeleton into a video, in which, dressed in vestments, he will be enclosed in the rib cage.

Taking up part of one wall was a large metal window grate composed of stylized bucolic scenes. It is a reproduction of one that guards a Mexican restaurant near his home that he liked so much he had it replicated. “I was thinking about protecting yourself from the outside with these seemingly peaceful views of nature, and thinking about walls and who is allowed in and who isn’t,” he said.

His art functions like the screen: formally beautiful constructions that shield you from the terrors and horrors of the world, occasionally letting a few through. “I wonder if it’s a kind of reconciling of actual fear and actual violence, and trying to distance myself from it and see it more clearly and objectively,” he said. “What does a house on fire look like as a form, and less like a house where one actually loses everything? No one likes a house on fire, but how can we think about it without emotion — because it exists in the world.” His soothing art is also self-soothing.

Da Corte’s own metaphor for how he processes pain sounds more Catholic: a taking on of what is troubling or downright evil in the world, soaking it up and releasing it in a distilled, nontoxic form. He is less a screen than a sponge. “The sponge has the capacity to take in, until it doesn’t, and then it lets go,” he explained. “There’s a balance. If I see something or something happens in my life that’s unsavory, there’s a desire to run away. But if you can absorb it and turn it into something good, that’s like a sponge.”

He is an enthusiastic audience for popular music, horror movies, art history, animation traditions and much, much more. In his art, he pays tribute to the efforts of those who inspire him by reproducing, sampling, hybridizing and embellishing their creations. “I think these works have so much emotion in them and so much care and, like, magic,” he said. “Maybe that’s part of realizing these things and making them exist in the world. It is because you want to spend time with the things you love or value, or that scare you. To know them better. To appreciate them.”

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