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Art In Conversation

ALEX DA CORTE with Jarrett Earnest

For his solo exhibition Die Hexe, Alex Da Corte transformed Luxemborg & Dayan’s elegant Upper East Side townhouse into a haunted mansion, covering every inch of its three floors. Embedded within his complex tableaux are objects by Mike Kelley, Haim Steinbach, Bjarne Melgaard, and Robert Gober. Da Corte met Jarrett Earnest there to discuss the ways colors create space, memories, and feelings. 

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui. From a photograph by Taylor Dafoe.

Jarrett Earnest (Rail): I want to walk through your exhibition talking primarily about color surface and the feelings it produces, rather than the symbolic function of the objects. For instance, the transition in the gingham wallpaper along the stairs, from the first to second floor: at first the pattern looks black and white (it might actually be a dark plum) but then going up the stairs it transitions subtly into a salmony color, until we’re in this peach room where the lights are a pink gradient—the far ends are the lightest pinks which step toward a dark peach in the center of the room.

Alex Da Corte: One of the ways I started thinking about color and light as a child was because of the great disappointment and discovery that cartoon shadows have to be painted and that cartoon candles don’t make light—it’s painted light. The way the darkness of the hallway transitions into this lit space is similar to the logic of a cartoon or an illustrated space; instead of assuming that the light will make the transition, you have to paint that in. Although, it is also lighted to be a gradient, so it’s even more subtle. Similarly, thinking about this room’s lights with that kind of logic I wanted the space to emulate the density and richness of the objects at the center. Unlike most spaces, the light you’re seeing here is not independent or unrelated to the objects in the room, but is a reflection of them—specifically the braided rug on the floor which goes from a rich to pale peach.

Installation view of Alex Da Corte, Die Hexe, 2015. Photo: John Bernardo. Courtesy of Luxembourg & Dayan, New York.

Rail: When were you first aware of color in your life, and of using it as an artist? How have your thoughts on color evolved?

Da Corte: I realized when I was working on this project that I was thinking about the psychological effects of color and how it is used to manipulate space, whether it’s a mall or a doctor’s office or whatever. Color is always operating on the way we feel. We navigate these public spaces in relationship to patterns, architectural structures, and colors of the spaces. When I was younger, one of the first science projects I did was in relationship to color: in seventh grade I did a survey of my peers—the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. I showed them a color and then asked: “What does that make you feel?” When I did this survey everyone would answer: “Blue reminds me of this,” or “makes me feel happy,” or “reminds me of sky, so it makes me feel happy.” “Yellow reminds me of this,” or “makes me feel that.” And then I calibrated all their answers and gave a presentation. It was a three-panel poster board with all the colors and the percentages of what everyone’s psychological relationship to these colors. I got slammed by my teachers and peers because they said “This is not science!” It wasn’t a vinegar-baking-soda volcano and it wasn’t a tornado whirling in a soda bottle—I was devastated. Color has always followed me and I’ve always been affected by it.

Rail: I’m teaching a class now called “Color Feelings” and this sounds like an origin story for it. How did you start thinking about color as space?

Da Corte: I had severe OCD when I was younger and the positioning of furniture in my parents’ house was major to me. I would notice if it was moved, like a hair, ever. I would measure these things with my hands, “The chair is five hands away from the wall,” or “four hands away from the TV.” So I think my relationship and obsessiveness about space and how it seeps into you crossed over into color. I come from a family of house painters so painting walls was very familiar to me, and after grad school I started working with my brother as a house painter again. I started thinking about why one person would pick “buff sand” to paint their powder room and another person pick “canary yellow” and another “powder blue” and then some lunatic would pick “fire engine red” for their bedroom. The people picking these colors have many rich characteristics and experiences in the world, so what led them to this neutral color or thatprovocative color? And what are they revealing about themselves with these choices? Fast-forward a couple of years and I’m making these spaces that are supposed to be like films, where the star of each space is its personality. I’m trying to absorb that imaginary person’s desires and choose a color; I’m not the author of the color, I’m more like an actor choosing a color for a character’s wall. So if I’m embodying someone who is in anticipation, maybe I’d surround myself with a particular peach gingham: I’m counting or I’m making marks and I’m doing a grid and I’m thinking about systems and calculating. If I’m someone who is full of love and desire or regret, maybe I’m thinking about green with waves of yellow passing—which is waves of furor.

Rail: What happens to your perceptions of space within this hexagonal room that has a peach gridded pattern in peach light? When you were conceiving it, how were the patterns and the lights working with and against the physical space?

Installation view of Alex Da Corte, Die Hexe, 2015. Photo: John Bernardo. Courtesy of Luxembourg & Dayan, New York.

Da Corte: The gallery and I had a conversation eight months ago and they said, “We need to know what the show looks like, let’s walk through the show.” I opened the front door—they followed with a piece of paper and notes—as we walked through the building I described the show: The first room is dark. There are three doors and you walk down a hallway. You’re tempted to go in, but you’re feeling uninvited, you walk down a hallway. You arrive at a room that is stirring and electric but not with electricity. Something is making you feel afraid, anxious, boiling. The next room you get to, you’re given a respite from that kind of anxiety and you have access, desire, love, sex. We walk upstairs. The next room is dealing with the things you have and had access to, feelings made physical, so it should be a pantry. The last room is a cadaver, it’s where things are cleansed, and you kind of start again. The first and last rooms should mirror each other. It’ll end in white, it’ll begin in black. There will be transitions from warm and woven things in the beginning into things that are harder—braided rugs lead to fur lead to a soft kind of plastic to a hard, cold plastic, and colder light. Literally traveling that way and walking through the space multiple times, I kept adding to this story without the specifics of the things—just like the feeling—and once I had the feelings, the show was done. It was ready.

Rail: So the peach room is warm, fuzzy, and creepy. It’s essentially a monochrome.  

Da Corte: Yes, specifically that space. It’s funny to think about peach light and thinking about my particular flesh as light—there’s a great song by Smog called “The Orange Glow of a Stranger’s Living Room.” I’m thinking about looking at lights from the outside of someone’s house—like all white light is different versions of peach or yellow or white and soft reds.

Rail: I think the way everything here absorbs and pushes back up gently against this peach light creates a palpable atmosphere.

Da Corte: Like a haze over it, I think so too. There’s this funny trick that happens—classic optical illusion—where there’s a grid and you start seeing spots. I was thinking about the Mike Kelley I put in the room in relation to swelling, because this particular “Arena #8” (1990) had a lump underneath—here’s this leopard trying to keep this bubble down. And thinking, then, about this grid also causing this same type of anticipating, bubbling, pushing up. Working with those kinds of feelings in color, you start to ask: How do you make color like a body? How do you make it physical? Think about just inflating your cheeks, then asking: How can I make that color?

Rail: There are missing bodies in that room—you have a replica of the multi-legged stool used by Kurt Cobain to block the door when he killed himself, set on a Mike Kelley—both heartbreaking iconic suicides. What about those two instances relate to the peachness?

Installation view of Alex Da Corte, Die Hexe, 2015. Photo: John Bernardo. Courtesy of Luxembourg & Dayan, New York.

Da Corte: I’m thinking about bodies and gestation. I knew that was a space for waiting or being in a waiting room. All the objects I included had some element of incompleteness; a rocking chair with no one rocking in it is waiting for someone to sit. Mike Kelley’s Arenas always felt like they’re waiting for someone to come play—like dolls were waiting for us to come to complete them—and we, the viewers, are like the special guest. In the same way the stool is sort of like a call to arms, because it’s such a fragile way to block a door, hardly saying, “Don’t come in and save me before I kill myself.” In fact, it’s not even a real stool, it’s a goofy stool. And then even further, what if you put a pumpkin, that’s also peach colored, on top of the stool—that’s organic and eventually going to rot—instead of say a box of tools as Cobain did. So for me all this peach is a call for bodies, a call for someone, when no one is there.

Rail: To me, this room is about both being a child and an old person, the way they bend toward each other in human feeling. But the next room over is really a grown-up, coldness-and-cruelty kind of space.

Da Corte: Yeah, because it’s about working to get what we want and then when we get what we want, we think, Oh this is what we wanted? Is this what being an adult is? Is this it?

Rail: I found really satisfying the neon sign over the blown-up wallpaper reproduction of Poussin’s “Midas and Bacchus” (1629) referencing Fassbinder’s film “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” (1972). That film is about the coldness of sexual power relations and somehow neon seems to me about that too; another Fassbinder film is called “Love is Colder Than Death,” and I think sometimes neon is colder than death. So there was something like that in all the things in this room. It’s very psychological and paradoxically drained of real pleasure, even while seeming to be erotic.

Da Corte: Well that is about power—I think about the phone.

Rail: You have a cell phone stuck up high on a chrome stripper pole.

Installation view of Alex Da Corte, Die Hexe, 2015. Photo: John Bernardo. Courtesy of Luxembourg & Dayan, New York.

Da Corte: In “Petra,” she’s reduced to relying on this one source of power; she has all this power in terms of money, clothes, and beauty, but the one thing she loses herself over is this really simple technological tool called the telephone, that she’s waiting to ring—“Goddamn it, call me back, bitch. Call me back.” And then she crumbles. And here we have, perfectly reflected in the Poussin, Midas wanting the golden touch, but then in the end he’s like, “I can’t eat! Take it away!” For Midas it was this need to eat, and for her it was this need to communicate. I’m thinking about the different ways the telephone can be a tool that gives you strength and can also be something that makes you come undone.

Rail: Going through your show I was thinking about clichés and how they work and how they can be reincarnated or repurposed. The thing that brought it to my mind now are the electric candles with artificially flickering orange flames—there is something to me that’s so embarrassingly heartfelt about them, even as they’re like the dumbest idea ever.

Da Corte: Yes, yes, yes, yes. The same can be said about all these things on this Bjarne Melgaard “Allen Jones Remake” (2013) table. Here are all of these Avon bottles, custom-made to suit your needs. A woman comes to your door and sells you these things to “Improve your lifestyle and access all your fantasies and travel,” like here’s Aladdin’s lamp, here’s something that looks like the Taj Mahal—exotic—these words are used. But really, you’re just putting on some schlocky-scented something-or-other and kind of feeling cheap. Maybe you’re not feeling cheap, but, in fact, when you smell these things, it’s pretty brutal. The same with the carafe full of Obsession, it’s literally called Obsession—so absurd. These facsimiles of desire made physical—a marble Kleenex holder, you know, has the “most luxury” when you’re blowing your nose. When you want to travel you surround yourself with things that promise you that. Even if they are a cheap flickering candle, that candle will never go out and if it does you can load it with new triple-a’s and you’re fine. All of these things have that kind of promise. My favorite thing on this table, which needs to be noted, is a ring—a diamond ring—that was being sold at most pharmacies around Valentine’s Day to kids—marketed to kids—that’s actually an eraser.

Rail: Your work has been written about as “high/low, low/high” and I think that that’s not a thing anyone our age cares about.

Da Corte: I don’t actually know what that means or connotes, but it’s related to this idea that I’m finding all these objects in this particular way that’s somehow dissimilar or stranger than just someone going to a thrift store and buying something. There’s something that troubles me about the word “found.”

Rail: What is it?

Da Corte: Well, “found” to me seems like casual and maybe like tripping over something. When I think of “found object” sculpture I think of bad versions of Joseph Cornell, you know kitschy assemblage, like the Philadelphia Wireman or something just like junk cobbled together. I think the places where I’m seeking this stuff are specific and I’m a consumer. I go to the grocery store, I buy massive amounts of mayo, I wouldn’t say they’re found—I went and sought them out. Sometimes, you discover something in a thrift store that surprises you, which is exciting, but I’ve located myself in a space where that potential is there. I think this conversation of “high and low” exists within that, depending on what store I’m going to, that I can travel between these spaces, but if someone buys Tupperware for their home and I buy the same Tupperware and stick it on a shelf as art and not use it, there’s tension there and I understand that.

Rail: This is the most deadpan version of this question, but with the Robert Gober drain in your show—installed behind a door on the first floor that you can look at through a peep hole, and then the reproduction of the drain in the top floor—why did it have to actually be a Robert Gober drain?

Da Corte: What do you mean?

Installation view of Alex Da Corte, Die Hexe, 2015. Photo: John Bernardo. Courtesy of Luxembourg & Dayan, New York.

Rail: Why isn’t it just a drain, like a real, regular drain?

Da Corte: Well, it comes out of my thinking about value and class and taste and access to all of these things and what makes an object scary or sad or expensive. The people that I’ve aligned myself with here, by physically absorbing in my show, (Mike Kelley, Robert Gober, Haim Steinbach, Bjarne Melgaard) are people who work with objects that are familiar, ready-mades, “found” objects, replicas, and they gave historical and conceptual frames for these items; as objects they grow in value and context through history and time. When I revisit something as simple as Bob Gober’s drain it’s no longer just a drain, it’s Gober’s drain. I’m trying to reevaluate that work in a new context of say, a haunted house or something—and in a haunted house does it have less value? Does it have more? Is it celebrated or not? Gober just had his show at the MoMA and there those drains had a beautiful, clear context. Here it’s maybe dirty or more like watching a penny arcade, or strip tease, or something: It has a different kind of flavor. In some ways it’s cheaper because you’re in a haunted house and so you’re waiting for someone to come out of it. It’s like: How do you go back to the place where these things were born? To me, it’s to align with the spirit of these artists; or, to align myself to the spirit of an object as it lives outside its art history context, which can become precious, or overly sensitive, or affected by money. I think that’s my big concern with these things. For instance: the stool that was on the Mike Kelley had to be moved today because the Mike Kelley is very valuable. I understand that, but it breaks my heart a little bit, because there was a physical touching—I got to touch this thing that he touched, and for me that’s very important. And then it’s taken away, bringing back class and status and to the things I’m trying to quash or level or shift.

Installation view of Alex Da Corte, Die Hexe, 2015. Photo: John Bernardo. Courtesy of Luxembourg & Dayan, New York.

Rail: You did a piece where you put a Paul Thek on a work by Anna Betbeze, and she talked to me about how much she liked that they were touching. That touching seems crucial.

Da Corte: Yeah, we read about our heroes and the things that inspire us. Mike Kelley is a huge hero of mine, and this is somehow as close as I can get to his work—to have some sort of physical relationship to it. It’s the same desire I’ve always had like when I wanted to put my dick against an Abercrombie and Fitch­­­ catalogue—but these meetings are partly failures; we can take something that’s sentimental to us and press it up against our heart but it won’t get you any closer to the thing you want. That friction is really where a lot of my work is located. It’s so much of that.


Jarrett Earnest

JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2015

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