Theater & art

Art Review

Stuff and nonsense in spellbinding show at Mass MoCA

A still from the video “Easternsports,” part of Alex Da Corte’s “Free Roses” installation at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
A still from the video “Easternsports,” part of Alex Da Corte’s “Free Roses” installation at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

NORTH ADAMS — It is unreasonable — it is actually mad — to expect as much as we do of objects. We feel them pulsing with possibility in our jeans pockets. We squeeze them until they squirt sauce onto our plates. We slice them and toast them and suck them and cradle them, and all the time we want something from them.

In functional terms, that something is simple. In psychological terms, what we want so far surpasses anything the objects could possibly provide that to reflect on the mismatch is to become humiliatingly aware of a low drone of hysteria inside us.

You’ll know what I’m talking about as soon as you enter “Free Roses,” a demented, fluorescent, and at times quite brilliant show of sculptures, paintings, videos, and installations by Alex Da Corte at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

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The show surveys 10 years of work by the 35-year-old, Philadelphia-based artist. Filling several large, contiguous galleries, Da Corte addresses — in a sophisticated but still-developing idiom that feels at once funny and sinister, familiar and fresh — sex, suburbia, symbolism, and stuff.

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What kind of stuff? Bright-colored stuff. Food. Plastics. Plastic foods. Food dye. Liquids. Ikea furniture. Beanbags shaped like burgers. Artificial Christmas trees. Acrylic fingernails. Rhinestones. Stuffed dogs. Circling bats. Sliced bologna.

That’s right. It’s random. And yet it’s all tighter, and smarter, than it sounds. Da Corte’s work has roots both in Pop Art (particularly Claes Oldenburg) and Surrealism, and shares a love of material profusion and rampaging symbolism with the likes of Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw.

He is part of a new generation of artists who dabble in traditional media like sculpture and painting, but truly excel at video and wildly theatrical presentation.

Born in New Jersey, Da Corte spent several years as a child in Caracas. He was brought up in a Catholic household, and encouraged to revere both Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and the art of caricature. As a boy, he wanted to work for Disney.

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His discovery of contemporary art in New York coincided with a burgeoning awareness of his homosexuality. Both discoveries, dovetailing, lent his early work power, urgency, and a palpable freedom.

Da Corte’s work may be rooted in mass consumer culture, but it is filtered through French Symbolist poetry, modern and contemporary art, and above all, perhaps, Catholicism, with its flair for ritual and theatrics, and its incorrigible eagerness to propose one thing as another.

A similar drive, part mocking, part sincere, underlies all of Da Corte’s work. The sheer proliferation of symbols can overwhelm one’s desire to decode them — but then, that might be part of the game plan.

Alex Da Corte’s “Lightning.”
John Bernardo
Alex Da Corte’s “Lightning.”

The show kicks off with a sprawling ensemble of sculptural tableaux called “Lightning.” It’s inspired, like several other works in the show, by Arthur Rimbaud’s prose poem, “A Season in Hell.”

“Hallucinations are without number,” wrote Rimbaud in that work. Da Corte evidently wants to prove him right.

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Two plastic swans with electric candles perched on their heads circle a splashing pool of pink water. A spider stands next to a giant tissue box.

A stuffed dog — a faithful replica of the dog that witnessed Nicole Brown Simpson’s murder — glides around a circular track. Two elongated mannequin arms with hands at both ends pass through the window of a pink house. On the other side are dozens of yellow tennis balls scattered on green carpet.

These and other tableaux are fastidiously arranged on neat squares of plush carpet surrounded by purple floorboards, under rectangular frames of colored neon light. The light lends everything a lurid, untrustworthy atmosphere. Bad things could happen here. They probably already have.

Da Corte regularly uses work by other artists in his installations. Usually it’s work by his peers. But here, in the final tableau of “Lightning,” he has surrounded Joseph Beuys’s “Lightning With Stag in Its Glare” — a cluster of bronze objects that invoke Christianity, socialism, and the spiritual power of nature — with carpet, bathing the whole ensemble in light.

The effect is to create a sense of travesty (the Beuys is usually regarded as a post-war masterpiece, heavy with symbolism). And yet it also reminds us that Beuys’s art was itself based on travesty. He was a myth-monger, an alchemist, a clown, a shaman.

“My life is threadbare,” wrote Rimbaud in “Lightning,” a chapter in “A Season in Hell.” He continued: “All right! Let’s sham and shirk. . . And we will go on enjoying ourselves, dreaming monstrous loves, fantastic universes, grumbling, and quarreling with the world’s appearances. . .”

More succinctly than any formulation I can contrive, those lines describe what Da Corte is up to: shamming and shirking, dreaming monstrous loves, inventing fantastic universes.

His collaged paintings and small sculptural tableaux are, it must be admitted, mediocre art school fare — too arbitrary to hold your attention.

His videos are a whole other thing. Neither as dark and anarchic as comparable videos by Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch, nor as tightly constructed and brilliantly conceived as those by Mika Rottenberg, they are nonetheless exceptional. Da Corte’s feeling for form and color, and his ability to squeeze a nonchalant poetry out of the most banal-seeming objects, is spellbinding.

His breakthrough work, “Chelsea Hotel #2,” is a sequence of simple actions performed to the strains of Leonard Cohen’s song of the same name.

Hands covered in dirt, flour paste, or aluminum come in and out of the picture frame. They flatten a loaf of sliced white bread; lift a slice of bologna from an upside-down orange bucket; peel a banana with a hoop ring attached to one end; and press back against a plastic bag inflated by a room fan.

A blue chair falls to the floor. A rose stem is wrapped in green plastic bubble wrap. Cherries are painted with red nail polish.

All this is projected on a screen in a room that has a mirrored floor with a red lattice pattern and walls with diagonal red-and-white stripes. At the opposite end is a low platform with a giant sub sandwich made from cast rubber.

The hoagie is fine. But the video is genuinely great. With just a few ingredients, all purchased from a cheap store in a moment of despair, Da Corte invented a private language and forged a visual poem from it. The three-minute video speaks with utmost concision and pathos of sex and love. Cohen’s song, by far his greatest, imbues it with the feeling that nothing more could possibly be said.

Da Corte, however, kept speaking — and very eloquently — in subsequent videos, culminating in 2014 with “Easternsports,” described as “a three-hour kaleidoscopic video-cum-telenovela.”

The four-screen installation, loosely based on Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town,” has a philosophical and frequently hilarious script by Jayson Musson, shown in subtitles, and shifting, minimalist music by Dev Hynes.

Da Corte’s slow-moving visuals — repetitive actions performed by actors in strange costumes in front of colorful, geometric backgrounds — are at once formally rigorous and kitschily grotesque. There’s a great comic undertow to it all.

Taut, camp, blindingly bright, and simultaneously open-hearted and scathing, it’s a major work of art, by an artist who doesn’t seem short of ideas, and feels dangerously in tune with the Zeitgeist.

Alex Da Corte: Free Roses

At Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams. Through Jan. 31, 2017. 413-662-2111, www.massmoca.org

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.