Alex Da Corte - Marigolds - Karma - September 20 - November 3, 2019
I don't like Alex Da Corte's work so I'm not going to dwell on descriptions. The show is based around a series of pages from old comic books where Da Corte used white out to isolate certain elements and then reproduced those elements as large foam wall pieces. The link to the documentation is above.* I won't say his work is objectively bad; he's a technically skilled videographer with a strong sense of imagery and I can easily imagine his work appealing to those who relate more to his aesthetic. Beyond the purely aesthetic, though, I don't think there's much happening in his work. It's quite clear how preoccupied he is with aesthetics considering his interest in cartoons and video, mediums that offer an escape from the constraints of reality and allow for the creation of a visually idealized space. In his conversation with Tausif Noor, also available in the link, he says that he thinks of his shows as cinematic in the sense that the experience of walking through the gallery is a "film" where the back of the room would be the middle portion and walking out the door is the ending. That underscores the technical weakness of his work, and of pure aestheticism in general: unless you're an aesthete who experiences reality in a quasi-cinematic way, this work falls flat in person because colored lights and bright images don't turn a gallery into a dream world where cartoons are real. This sensibility can work in idealizing mediums like Instagram or video, but faced with its tangible reality the pieces are little more than indulgences in fantasy, the literally childish experience of being engrossed in a comic book.
That's perfectly fine if you're sentimental about reading Halloween comics when you were a kid, as Alex Da Corte seems to be. What's more problematic is his consistent assertion that this space of fantasy is something that contains a radical potential to change the unaccommodating reality that we live in. How so? All I see is an attempt at an escape into childhood. Da Corte doesn't necessarily think of his work this way, as he explains a few of the meanings of the pieces, for instance that one of the cartoons of a broken jack-o-lantern symbolizes "the proof that time passes as you sleep." Presumably he attaches a metaphorical symbolism to each of his works, but since he doesn't freely provide that information to his audience and there is nothing inherent in the show that would lead a viewer to his conclusions about the images, what possible relevance could they have? His readings are personal and individualistic, as are his aesthetics. There's a certain solipsism in this preoccupation with what the artist liked when they were a child, the implication that this is somehow unique or important. This is all a part of a larger trend in contemporary art that I call Sentimental Aesthetics, where artists appropriate imagery that relates back to their childhood or adolescence. The contention of these artists, like Da Corte, is that by dwelling on the images that we loved before adulthood, we somehow revive the emotions and potentials of our selves before we became jaded and desensitized. But really all this is is the closed loop of nostalgia. Yearning for the past is a hopeless exercise because its power is precisely in its yearning, the melancholic desire for a second youth and the sadness of its impossibility. Near the end of the conversation video, Noor speaks of the power of dreaming by using the example of one of the works, Bugs Bunny's hands playing a hollowed out carrot like a flute, which he calls a "blueprint for something different." But childish whimsy can't be a blueprint for a new reality for a very good reason: a rabbit can't play a carrot like a flute! This is what this work yearns for, a simpler time where we thought cartoons were real and everything seemed possible because we didn't understand how things worked yet. If a second youth is possible, the way to it is not through longing for our first youth but in the invention of a new one, one that accommodates for the difficulties and complexities of the real world. Similar to the loop of nostalgia, there is an irony in the valorization of appropriating our childhood images as a creative act. He fetishizes the imaginary, but the only thing Da Corte imagines is a venue for his sentimental attachment to already existing images from children's comics, a capitalist industry that willingly operates in the unaccommodating world he seeks to avoid. Radical potential indeed...
While I was at the gallery I only quickly scanned Tausif Noor's essay in the exhibition publication, but I loosely remember a quote from Robert Gober that started the essay, something along the lines that he would never reveal his personal experiences that inspire his works. This is an odd choice for a quote because it has no relevance to Da Corte's work. Noor distinguishes Da Corte from older artists who use appropriation because they used their appropriated content towards some critical, ironic, or conceptual end, whereas Da Corte appropriates with earnest affection for his images. What Noor fails to recognize is that the dramatic irony of appropriation, the gesture that separates the artist from the appropriated work, is precisely the content of those works. Duchamp's urinal and Gober's sinks are not about urinals or sinks. They are respectively about the separation between life and art, and an unsettling abstraction of domesticity. By standing apart from their works, the artists function as pivots that generate the art's ambiguity and meaning in relation to the viewer, art itself, the world, etc. But Alex Da Corte's work is an act of personal affiliation with the appropriated imagery. By affiliating, his work fails to have any distance through which a social dimension can emerge. The only thing the work is about is the fact that he likes these images. If you share his tastes, I guess you'll agree with him that the show looks nice. But even if you do, why would you care? What does his taste in comics have to do with anyone else's reality?
More so even than the cyclical dead-endedness of yearning for childhood, the failing of Sentimental Aesthetics is that it is a narcissistic act of solipsism. If art is to have any radical potential, it will have to come from an assertion of a collective, a cultural sensibility. Every artistic era before the 20th century was wrought as an articulation of its culture, and its aesthetic came from that articulation. Even the Modernist movements, while they celebrated individualism, articulated culture as it declined. Now that capitalism has swallowed nearly every last shred of culture we had left, we find artists cannibalizing their childhoods, fetishizing the cultural past in the absence of any coherent culture of their own. The only artistic culture is the art market, where one has to brand and market one's self as an individualized commodity, but these efforts only underline that these artists have nothing to invent or say, or even much they can do to distinguish themselves from one another. All they can do is recycle past artistic signifiers and call out anyone recycling similar signifiers as a thief. Art can only instigate radical change as long as it is connected with a culture because the individual does not have the power to invent. As cultures change and develop, art develops alongside and within it. So-called geniuses are not the source of cultural peaks or revolutions, they are the product of them. At its best, art is the expression of a people. Or rather, art is always the expression of a people. The tragedy of this sentimental trend in art is that the culture it exposes is a collection of people who wrongly believe themselves to be unique individuals, when in fact they're simply sad children running from the harsh reality of their own isolation.
*(I'm not sure what descriptive art reviews are supposed to accomplish in 2019 when most galleries have their documentation online before the show comes down.)