BY Kevin Brazil in Reviews | 09 DEC 20
Featured in
Issue 217

Alex Da Corte’s Nostalgia for Pop

For his first solo exhibition at Sadie Coles HQ, the artist riffs on the iconographies and hierarchies of a bygone era

BY Kevin Brazil in Reviews | 09 DEC 20

Across video, painting and immersive installations, Philadelphia-based artist Alex Da Corte plays with visual trickery and theoretical allusion to both savour and disrupt the shiny surfaces of popular culture. For his first solo exhibition at Sadie Coles HQ, ‘Helter Shelter or: The Red Show! Or …’, the artist derives part of his title from a 1955 Woody Woodpecker cartoon. The phrase, Da Corte informs us in the exhibition text, riffs on ‘Helter Skelter’, a ‘British word that means confusion or disorder’, which also happens to be the title of a 1968 Beatles song, a 1974 novel about the Manson Family murders, and the name of a children’s slide. Word play leads to a chain of associations that, rather than cohere, proliferate through addition and substitution: an animation, a song, a murder spree, a playground attraction.

Alex da Corte Helter Shelter
Alex Da Corte, 'Helter Shelter or: The Red Show! or...', installation view at Sadie Coles HQ, London. Courtesy: © the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London; photograph: Eva Herzog

The walls of the main gallery are painted bright red. Large plywood screens in various colours – lemon yellow, baby pink – fill the space; some lie on the floor, others are propped against pillars. It looks as if a cheap theatre set has collapsed. On each, a painting in the style of an animated cartoon hangs beside a vinyl symbol. One depicts a book called Complete and Unbelievable: The Dictionary alongside a mysterious sign, a ‘c’ on fire (A Good Book or: Stand on The Word or ..., all works 2020). Another displays the Spanish letter ‘ñ’ alongside a painting of a children’s game: drawings of clothes to be cut out and folded onto a cardboard doll (5 Standard Stoppages or: One Day of the Week, Two or ...). Systems of signification we think we have mastered – dictionaries, fashion, alphabets – have gone awry while symbols offer a mere performance of meaning. Isolated in the gallery, they refer to nothing beyond the second part of the exhibition: a hall of mirrors titled ‘The Red Show’.

Alex da Corte Hurricane
Alex Da Corte, Year of The Hurricane, 2020, installation view at Sadie Coles HQ, London. Courtesy: © the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London; photograph: Robert Glowacki

Da Corte’s symbols hover on the edge of familiarity by evoking the dream factory of American popular culture: a system that, supposedly, has long-expressed the world’s desire. In American Speech, lightboxes replicate the illuminated frontages of old cinemas. Mr. Olympia’s Flower Show or: No Highway Cowboys or… reproduces a newspaper print of a glistening bodybuilder, the kind of mass-manufactured sexuality that has entranced artists since Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. What fascinated them, as it does Da Corte, is that our involvement with the images that shape our desire is rarely consensual – and that not everyone sees reflections of themselves in these depictions. The Democrats or: White Teeth or … is a painting of the all-white cast of the Peanuts comic strip (1950–2000), whose speech bubbles contain blurry rainbow colours. A family norm that once appeared daily has now become unintelligible, as much a relic as the print newspapers in which it appeared.

Alex Da Corte The Democrats
Alex Da Corte, The Democrats or: White Teeth or ..., 2020, Plexiglass, Flashe paint, sequin pins, foam, velvet, hardware, wood frame, 186 x 186 x 8 cm. Courtesy: © the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London

With its iconographies of a bygone era – cartoons, 1970s fashion, Hollywood hunks – the exhibition evokes a nostalgia for the pop culture that provided us with our first love stories and our earliest heroes and heroines. Yet, the very concept of a ‘popular culture’, defined by its opposition to elite art, now seems to belong to a different age. By showing how older symbolic systems no longer make sense, Da Corte prompts us to reflect on those that shape us today. But nostalgia fixates on what we want the past to be, not what really happened. In the exhibition text, Da Corte quotes from a cartoon depicting Donald Duck in a library – ‘History? I don’t have the faintest notion of it’ – cited in How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic (1971), a Marxist attack on Disney cartoons as American propaganda. The notion that a critique of popular culture can liberate us from capitalist exploitation: is that too just another nostalgic fantasy from a bygone era?

Alex Da Corte, ’Helter Shelter or: The Red Show! or…’, is on view at Sadie Coles HQ, London, until 12 December.

Main image: Alex Da Corte, American Speech, 2020, installation view. Courtesy: © the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London; photograph: Robert Glowacki

Kevin Brazil is a writer and critic based in London, UK. His book, What Ever Happened to Queer Happiness was published by Influx Press in 2022.