Philly’s Rock Star of Art

How Alex Da Corte put the city’s art scene on the international map (and found inspiration in Nicole Brown Simpson’s dog)

Da Corte in his Juniata studio | Photograph by Jauhien Sasnou

Da Corte in his Juniata studio | Photograph by Jauhien Sasnou

Outside a leaky old candy factory in Juniata, the season’s first snowstorm is caking the sidewalk in slush. A fire-engine-red door opens with the push of a tattooed hand belonging to artist Alex Da Corte. He ushers me inside a cavernous space the size of a basketball court, past a series of installations in mid-assembly, up a flight of stairs, and into a room that has the makings of a David Lynch dream sequence. There’s a bushy-tailed dog ablaze in peach-hued sunlight, propped up on all fours, staring at me from the perch of a plywood table. It’s stiff as the Sphinx. “That’s Nicole Brown Simpson’s Akita. It’s the dog they say found the bodies,” Da Corte explains, showing me its scraggily wire innards with gleeful delight. The pup will soon be placed on a mechanical track and rotate in circles, as if searching for something. To add a touch of dementedness, Da Corte has adorned the replica with a rubber Halloween dog mask. The dog is wearing a dog mask. “It’s maniacal,” Da Corte says. “It’s just not right.”

I can’t help but chuckle — not only at the creepy use of taxidermy, but throughout my chaperoned tour of his studio. Objects familiar yet distorted are everywhere: a black aluminum Looney Tunes logo that’s eight feet tall; a coffin-sized tissue box; an island with a chimney straight out of Dr. Seuss. (“You’re anticipating the Grinch but maybe you don’t get the Grinch,” Da Corte notes.) What does it all mean? I have no idea. But for contemporary art, which can be intimidatingly self-serious, his range of work is as viscerally powerful as it is refreshingly playful. “Sometimes we forget that humor is a big part of not making things feel so … cold,” says Da Corte, who looks like a taller, thinner Eminem.

The masked Akita is part of Da Corte’s largest exhibition to date, occupying 15,000 square feet and showing this month at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s both a survey of the past decade of his career — he’s only 35 years old — and an interpretation of Rimbaud’s nine-part prose poem A Season in Hell. The tableau he’s exploring, related to the part titled “Lightning,” is, in Da Corte’s words, “different ways that a domestic space is fractured, as though it were struck by lightning.” He also drew inspiration from a Joseph Beuys sculpture, Lightning With Stag in Its Glare, on view at Mass MoCA. And the museum is housed in a defunct electric factory.

You get the idea: so many layers, both physical and metaphorical. One writer for Art in America tweeted this about Da Corte’s work: “The art of alex da corte is akin to an everything bagel,” suggesting both complexity and mass appeal. Da Corte has earned acclaim from the New York Times, Artforum, and Interview magazine, which christened him “an heir to the American school of Pop.” Only six years out of grad school, he’s Philly’s hottest fine-arts export, represented by two galleries (in Milan and Copenhagen) and already conquering major museum exhibitions. Da Corte is fast approaching the pinnacle of contemporary art, though he prefers not to talk about it. “My idea of a career isn’t to be like Jeff Koons,” he says, unprompted, as a team of assistants hustles about the studio. “I don’t care about being hyper-polished.”

At a time when Philly is regaining its footing as an “international city,” Da Corte is its unofficial ambassador for contemporary art. But it’s not a role he wholeheartedly embraces. Business trips to Lyon (“the most amazing food”), photographing covers for All-In magazine with actor Willem Dafoe (“Willem was a fucking dream”), directing a national Gap ad — none of that fits the indie-upstart image he clings to. “Everything I did was so punk,” he tells me about his formative art-making, while also downplaying the national critics who drool over him now. “It’s just that taste changes. Flavors change. I have no control of that.” It’s tough to know which veneer — stardom or scrappiness — is a truer illustration of Da Corte at this moment in his skyrocketing career.

MARRYING ART AND COMMERCE in Philadelphia has long been a challenge. “There are not a lot of collectors here,” says Sid Sachs, director of exhibitions at the University of the Arts, which houses the underappreciated Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery on South Broad. “An artist survives here by going to teach. That’s allowed them the freedom to do what they want to do without having to sell stuff.” In generations past, if you wanted to be taken seriously, you went to New York; if you wanted to pour soda on poodles and call it performance art, you stayed in Philly.

But as the city gets hipper, so does its art scene. The Barnes moved in. The last Whitney Biennial had a Philly curator. And the University of Pennsylvania has recently added five full-time positions to its MFA program, even as many schools are looking to trim costs. We have an impressive array of ephemeral galleries and artist-run collectives, especially on 11th Street just north of Chinatown. These are the spots teeming with insiders on any given First Friday, not the Old City window-shops. “I don’t know if Philadelphia is ever going to be an art center,” says David Dempewolf, who co-directs the Marginal Utility gallery. “But in some ways, it seems as if the art world is becoming more decentralized.”

For Da Corte, the decision to stay in Philly was about more than his family ties to South Jersey. “It seems that this city allows him to calm down and make the work he needs to make without having to internalize the expectations of galleries and museum directors,” says Dempewolf, who has known Da Corte for more than a decade. Being able to afford three rooms totaling more than 8,000 square feet, which in Brooklyn might cost something like $100,000 in annual rent, is also pretty sweet.

There’s a reason more than one person uses the word “anomaly” to describe Da Corte’s career. Philly has never been an easy place in which to climb the art-world ladder. “In Philadelphia right now, aside from Alex Da Corte, who is actually living off their art?” says Alex Baker, director of Chinatown’s Fleisher Ollman gallery. Or as Anthony Elms, curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art and the 2014 co-curator of the Whitney Biennial in Greenwich Village, succinctly puts it: “You can become accidentally successful in New York. Not in Philly.”

PERHAPS “UNEXPECTEDLY” IS the better word. After a childhood spent in Venezuela and then the Pittsburgh ’burbs, Da Corte landed in Haddonfield as a teenager. The suburban upbringing (“very, very, very, very normal,” he says) is a major source of inspiration, albeit satirical, in his work: “The suburbs embody this idea of the mask, where there’s a clear front-yard situation — what is presented to the world — and then there’s what’s happening on the inside of the house.” What Da Corte himself presents is a contrast of workman-like attire (a light blue tee, understated boots, hoodie) and a vernacular steeped in high-minded artspeak.

As an animation-obsessed kid, Da Corte dreamed of going to work for Disney, until studying at the University of the Arts pulled his illustrations off the page. He began slapping wheat-paste graffiti on facades all over the city, in styles he borrowed from masters like Warhol and Oldenburg. “Even back then, he had a kind of iconography. He was doing things about diners, ketchup bottles. It was his thing,” says Sachs, who briefly taught Da Corte at the University of the Arts. (He graduated in 2004.) Meanwhile, Da Corte was generating his own aesthetic, combed from his surroundings. “In my formative years, while I was trying to make sense of what ‘contemporary’ was — or ‘conceptual’ was — this was the place I was going to look at art,” he says. “There’s no coincidence that my work is in relationship to, say, Duchamp’s and the beautiful collection at the Philadelphia Museum. It’s all tied to what the city has presented to me.”

Chalking up Da Corte’s moonshot rise as the natural maturation of a creative genius would be selling him short. He’s talented, unquestionably, but according to peers, he’s also got some old-fashioned piss-and-vinegar, along with a keen eye for networking. “Ever since I’ve known him, he’s been incredibly driven as well as charming,” says accomplished Philly installation artist Virgil Marti. Marti, soft-spoken, with a long Gandalf-like beard, served as mentor for several years (“He taught me everything I know,” Da Corte says) when Da Corte was in his 20s and the art-world equivalent of a towel boy on the basketball squad: young, inexperienced, eager to get in the game.

More than once, Da Corte found himself in the right place at the right time. “One of Marti’s assistants, the 26-year-old Alex Da Corte, is poised to be another Philadelphia success story,” T Magazine declared in 2006, in a story about the uncommercial glory of Philadelphia’s art. Though he doesn’t appear until eight paragraphs in, Da Corte scored a photo, bespectacled and flanneled, with an anaconda-sized fabric creation draped around his neck. Two years later, he landed at Yale, whose MFA program is to art what a Supreme Court clerkship is to law.

Da Corte was off and running: Paris, Vancouver, Detroit, Mallorca — all within three years out of grad school. He continues to show here intermittently (his last exhibition was in 2014) and has bridged a gap that few local artists have. “Philly is great for the young and the more established, but it’s hard to find that middle ground,” says Anthony Elms. With an impressive and growing CV, Da Corte also bypassed the artist-run collectives that dominate the local scene — and that create, some say, an insular group-think environment that can be professionally limiting. At every turn, Da Corte’s success seemed defined by anomaly.

But the exceptionalism others ascribe to Da Corte is uncomfortable, even aggravating, to the wunderkind himself. Throughout our conversations, he shows a Bartleby-like unwillingness to acknowledge the separation between himself and the field. “I’m a participant, and I live in the city just like a lot of other amazingly talented artists do,” he says. “There’s no path that’s the same, at all. That’s what makes for life’s rich pageant.”

Referencing an R.E.M. album is one way of deflecting a question. At other times, Da Corte is more blunt. Do his installations sell? “I think it’s private.” What neighborhood do you live in? “It’s not something that I want in print.” He shies away from the status of local celebrity, but at times — busy and guarded, even paranoid — he behaves like one. When I ask to see him in Massachusetts while he’s installing his exhibit, Da Corte declines — too impossibly hectic that week. One of the few candid moments in our interviews was when he gushed about the fact that his parents come to every opening.

Walled off to me but no stranger to the art scene, Da Corte is well respected and even revered for sticking in Philly. He’s also occasionally sniped at, and as if to confirm his status and influence, almost everyone doing the sniping asks to remain anonymous. It’s suggested to me that one of Da Corte’s signature techniques, the conscious appropriation of other artists’ work into his own (which he relates, in part, to how we share a proliferation of images and ideas in the age of social media and the Internet), might have produced some foul play. I was pointed to a 2009 sculpture by a local talent, a three-by-three stack of peanut butter jars with red lids and labels removed, and then to a 2013 image of a Da Corte installation that includes a two-by-four stack of (you guessed it) unlabeled peanut butter jars with red lids.

But the other artist shrugged it off as potentially coincidental, and if not, a flattering example of fair use. When I ask Da Corte whether the uncomplimentary suggestion bothers him, he says hardly, because he didn’t recollect the other sculpture when he produced his own. “That’s just the cosmos. Synchronicity and multiplicity and coincidence,” he says, before adding a postmodern question for the ages: “Am I bothered that Eminem has the same face as me?”

Years ago, a friend sent Da Corte a picture of the artist wearing a hat and standing in front of the Mona Lisa, taken on a day when Da Corte had been at the Louvre. Strange, he thought. He didn’t remember getting his picture taken. A couple days later, he says, he realized the man in the photo was in fact Eminem.

“I started thinking about myself in relation to him. It was very upsetting to me that this guy is very troubled and plays the character of Slim Shady, who’s this misogynist and very brutal and is celebrated widely in the country, this hetero-normative beast. And here I am, the opposite of that, being Hispanic and gay and quite sensitive. But there could be a similar appearance. We both wore the same mask,” he says, with the Akita peeking over his shoulder.

Apart from the obvious takeaway (this guy is really obsessed with masks), I’m struck by how Da Corte extracts the avant-garde from such a relatively mundane story. As complex as his art can be, his mythmaking might be even more layered. It reminded me of something that Philly artist Meredith Sellers said: “At this point, contemporary art is about the idea of belief. It’s not so much about the objects themselves, but about the ideas that you are espousing within those objects and if someone believes it or not.”

Even when Da Corte lost me in artspeak, I found his words mesmerizing when it came to his installations — the “islands” comprising his creative mind. Perhaps his greatest talent is the ability to sell both himself and his work while still leaving much to the imagination.

Published as “The Rock Star of Philly Art” in the April 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.