February 17 – March 18, 2018
Coming upon Alex Da Corte’s exhibition C-A-T SPELLS MURDER at KARMA in Alphabet City is like walking towards a mirage. From over a block away, Da Corte draws you into his orbit with an electric blue neon sign of eyeglasses, complete with two green cat’s eyes, which hang above the entrance to the gallery. Karma is not a mirage, but the glasses suggest we may not be seeing things clearly. In the one large window facing the street, Da Corte has installed an open window made out of neon with a single candle that signals to the outside world a haven is within reach if you can find the door. The window is a recurring symbol in this exhibition. It represents the state of not knowing whether you are peering into or out of an interior space.
While neon signs are customary to storefronts and businesses, Da Corte uses them to signify a non-place between nostalgia and alienation where the semblance of a candle flame signals safety and warmth, but the looming presence of cat’s eyes warn of potential danger. The front desk and gallerists are enveloped in a piercing yellow-green light emitted from the atmospheric neon lights installed in the ceiling. Instead of a catalog, the desk boasts a book of spooky essays written by industry professionals, including artist Collier Schorr and Team Gallery’s Alissa Bennett, alongside a poem-as-press-release that starts with the following:
There’s a shutter at the door
and your cat’s your best friend
but everything is fine because you just know that
but did you leave the window upstairs open?
Here, Da Corte teases out a deep, childlike, and anxious curiosity where the window becomes a gateway to the unknown. The entire space, except the front desk near the entrance, is cast in pink-orange lights that yield a color field so powerful it almost smells. The carpet is soft, but the lights are harsh, producing an atmosphere teeming with dissonance. In line with his other immersive exhibitions, C-A-T SPELLS MURDER melds the personal and biographical with collective iconography of childhood memories and horror motifs alongside references to pop culture.
On each of the four walls, Da Corte installed a single window made of neon, backed by the vinyl siding used on the exterior of homes. In the center of the gallery is a towering sculpture of a plush but rigid cat on its back. At the back of the gallery is a glowing threshold, akin to James Turrell’s work, which leads to a screening room that emits thunderous noise with increased intensity over time. The petrified cat’s would-be shadow, outlined in the carpet with a dark blue fabric that is both black and purple, echoes a crime scene. Da Corte leaves few clues as to what chthonic monster killed the cat.
The neon on the farthest wall from the entrance but directly facing you features a glowing homemade pie cooling off in the windowsill and echoes countless cartoons of nuclear-family America. The graphic triggers a memory of comfort food, but the putrid green color leaves one suspended in a mysterious place between comfort and apprehension.
The three remaining neon wall works show the same window in varying degrees of neglect and abandonment. One window is nearly taken over by a glowing red spider web that is so intricate you can see, hear, and feel the neon moving through the tubes like ghosts caught in the in-between. Another neon depicts the same window boarded up with planks of wood. The remaining wall features the same window with refurbished neon shutters and a black interior that does not have spider webs, boards, or pie, but a pair of cat-esque eyes that occasionally peer out from the void, stalking visitors as they navigate the gallery.
The screening room is a slightly softer pink, but no less unsettling than the main gallery, and contains another neon wall work of a window, this time with a curtain blowing in the wind. Opposite the neon is a wall to wall video projection, The Open Window, featuring a typical 1950s suburban housewife standing in repose and stroking a white cat. However, this actress is none other than melodic riff master Annie Clark, of the band St. Vincent. St. Vincent and Da Corte recently collaborated on her music video New York, but in De Corte’s world, it is easy to mistake her as the perfect damsel in distress. The video starts with an array of pool balls settling within a triangular rack. Each ball features a distinct graphic including a smiling emoji, a cat’s eye, a spider-web, and a flower that collide and create unique arrangements with each stroke of the pool cue. As the beautiful white lady hangs in the background, but very much present, her emotions subtly change and increase from confusion to concern, then finally to sheer terror over the eleven-minute video. The intense rumble that occasionally echoes through the main gallery now fully resounds within the body of the viewer. Just as Clark opens her mouth to scream, a pool cue hits its mark, causing a moment of chaos, and the cat faces the camera for the first time. While Clark’s screams go unheard, presumably deafened by the upside down smiley face that now hovers over her mouth, the cat stares blankly with its one eye.
Alex Da Corte never reveals what the palpable monster is, but its existence is felt in the discord he produces within the viewer when the strange comfort of fresh pie cooling in a windowsill is displaced by fear and intrigue upon recognizing its poisonous aroma. Like the unmistakable presence of eyes lingering just out of sight in the darkness of an empty house, Da Corte wedges the viewer into an uncanny headspace where nostalgia and curiosity meet the goosebumps on your back. But be careful—curiosity killed the C-A-T.
ContributorJesse Bandler Firestone
Jesse Bandler Firestone is an independent curator based between New York and Florida. He was Curator in Residence at Trestle Projects from 2016-2017 and is currently pursuing his MFA in Curatorial Practice at SVA.