Alex Da Corte,Rubber Pencil Devil, 2018,

57th Carnegie International. Photo by Tom Little. Courtesy of the artist and Karma New York.

Alex Da Corte's Neon Ghost House Is the Stuff of Dreams—And Nightmares

The 2016 presidential election, witches on Sesame Street, and the time Andy Warhol got trapped in a stairwell are just some of the specters haunting artist Alex Da Corte.

by Grant Johnson
|
Oct 26 2018, 5:43pm

Alex Da Corte,Rubber Pencil Devil, 2018,

57th Carnegie International. Photo by Tom Little. Courtesy of the artist and Karma New York.

Alex Da Corte is a Philadelphia-based artist whose detailed installations create surreal, festive environments for his paintings and sculptures. As part of the 57th Carnegie International, which opened at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art this month, Da Corte built a house made out of neon tubing that also serves as a screening room for three hours of video divided into 57 chapters (an allusion not only to the exhibition’s anniversary but also to Heinz’s iconic numeral). The artist plays multiple roles in the videos, including a turn as local hero Fred Rogers. GARAGE caught up with Da Corte to discuss the work, on view at the Carnegie Museum of Art until March 25, 2019, and the enduring legacy of Pop art.

GARAGE: Could you describe the project in your own words? What is it?

Alex Da Corte: Rubber Pencil Devil is a house based on the late, great architect Robert Venturi’s ghost house [Franklin Court, 1976] in Philadelphia, which is a reimagining of Benjamin Franklin’s home, but just as the skeleton of a house.

GARAGE: Can you describe a few of the videos playing inside the installation at the museum?

They are a kind of mix tape of images. One is a reinterpretation of the Venezuelan pop artist Marisol Escobar’s Love (1962), which is a plaster cast of her face with a Coke bottle shoved in her mouth. I swapped the soda bottle with a Heinz ketchup bottle, and it emerges from a cast of my own face with a prosthetic of the Statue of Liberty on it. In the video, that image is composed like a still life, but the ketchup is also slowly seeping into my mouth while Erykah Badu’s “I Want You” plays.

There is also a replica of a scene from an episode Sesame Street that was banned from future broadcasting after it first aired in 1976. This lost episode involved Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, flying over Sesame Street. There are only two images that exist of her appearance, including one photo where Hamilton’s in the garbage pile next to Oscar the Grouch, frowning. I took that scene and dressed myself as Margaret Hamilton in full witch costume with Oscar, and as we’re bathed in blue light we sing the 1996 LeAnn Rimes song “Blue.”

A fair amount of the citations you’ve mentioned come from television. What is your relationship to TV or similar media these days?

The house is set up in a way that allows you to be a kind of Peeping Tom, peering in. I really love the movie Halloween (1978), and I grew up in the town of Haddonfield, [New Jersey], where the name of its fictional setting comes from, and I’ve always enjoyed the way [director] John Carpenter used this first person point of view for the opening scene, when Michael is looking through the window at his sister and her boyfriend having these quiet, intimate moments. Also, a couple years ago I was at a show in the suburbs of Detroit and this young artist Zach Kolo had made a series of photographs based on the 2016 presidential debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. On the night these debates aired, it seemed as though everyone was watching, so he walked through his town and photographed viewers through their windows, turning them into these glossy, shitty pictures. Looking at the silhouette of someone’s head through a window watching this blurry TV screen of two people arguing was infinitely captivating, immanent, and very relatable. I think in a lot of ways this show is indebted to that person and those photos, because we live in a time where we are constantly having an M.C. Escher or René Magritte-like moment, where we are experiencing reality as a window within a window within a window.

One point of reference for your work generally, but Rubber Pencil Devil in particular, because it was made for Pittsburgh, is Andy Warhol . On the eve of the Whitney Museum’s latest retrospective of that artist, what are your thoughts about Warhol’s relevance?

The first time I worked with [Carnegie International curator] Ingrid Schaffner, I had recently gotten out of grad school at Yale and moved back to Philadelphia and she encouraged me to speak with [poet] Kenneth Goldsmith, who was teaching a class at the University of Pennsylvania about Warhol. They were researching his first American retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art in 1965. When he arrived at the ICA with Edie and his whole entourage, there was a mania that famously drove him up a fake stairwell, and he was trapped there. I made a sculpture of this stairwell and imagined—even though the lore says they cut a hole in the ceiling and he went through a crawl space out into another area of the building where he could leave—that he never actually left. My piece was more like a balcony you couldn’t access, with a bunch of silver plants in buckets of shampoo and covered in baby powder, something kind of soft, smelly, and distant. I think there’s a way to soften the flatness of celebrity and commerce into something strange.

And something that’s not so harsh?

Just something that is not so cool, not so seemingly straight, because we understand the language of advertising so well at this point. If the move at one time was to create icons by flattening sex, beauty, or tragedy into a single or repetitive image, now we live in a time where the harshness of multiplicity is our waking life. We can wrap flexible, thin, vulnerable gauze over that harshness and weaken it. That would be our strength.