February 17, 2018
There is a new optometrist’s office on East Second Street, at least at first glance. A pair of spectacles made from blue and green neon hangs over the entrance to number 188—you can see how easily it might seduce self-improvement-seeking Manhattan clientele. It could be the setting for the perfect crime, a kind of Sweeney Todd’s barbershop for the Instagram-prone, luring unsuspecting victims with promises of better vision.
Philadelphia-based artist Alex Da Corte hopes visitors will bring that expectation with them when they discover that 188 East Second is actually the site of his newest show, “C-A-T Spells Murder,” which he has installed at Karma, a gallery and book publisher. “I want people to be thinking about glasses, looking better, or looking clearer,” he says, when they first encounter this latest project, which opens tonight, and asks whether the nobler goal is actually a more blurred perception of things.
“C-A-T Spells Murder” takes its name from the nonsensical reading line on R.L. Stine’s 1997 young adult novel Cat, one of his 52 Fear Street books, the older, scarier, sexier sibling to the beloved Goosebumps series. Da Corte read them all not as a teen but as an adult, living back at home in New Jersey after finishing art school in 2010. “I was trying to empathize with my younger sister, who was in her early 20s and going through some things,” he says, and he thought the stories in Stine’s novels might help get him into her headspace. For Da Corte, here, as in last year’s Frankenstein-inspired Slow Graffiti, horror is an entry point into, rather than a departure from, human nature. (This also partially explains why he used to dress up as Michael Myers of Halloween, which takes place in a town named for Da Corte’s own, Haddonfield, and “stalk” his family members.)
The Fear Street books—like One Evil Summer, Killer’s Kiss, and Who Killed the Homecoming Queen?—depict suburban teens who end up dead, running from ghosts and murderers, or killing off evil menaces. “A lot of times there’s a girl plagued by the telephone,” (i.e. “The call is coming from inside the house”), “or she hears something outside the window.” Windows accordingly make up the majority of the works in “C-A-T”: six bright sculptures hang on the pink walls of Karma’s main exhibition space, depicting a familiar, Norman Rockwell–style still life—a window, a windowsill, and the wood slats of a house—ornamented by neon elements that are sometimes welcoming, sometimes sinister. “So much of my work is about taste,” Da Corte says. “What is good taste or bad taste?” Considering each scene, the viewer is “recalibrating how we’re looking at familiar icons: Is a spiderweb good or bad? Is a pie cooling on the sill good or bad?” Karma visitors might recognize Roe Etheridge’s photo of a bloodied Andrew W.K., transformed by Da Corte, hanging in the gallery’s entrance.
It’s shocking to learn that “C-A-T Spells Murder” has been in the works since 2010, given how perfectly the show feels pitched to the zeitgeist—so much so that Fox recently announced it would be releasing three Fear Street film adaptations. The pulpy kitsch of artist Bill Schmidt’s melodramatic Fear Street covers, which Da Corte reveres, inform the artist’s ’80s color and mood palettes—those pink walls, a garish orange wall-to-wall carpet, Americana objects rendered in glowing neon—an aesthetic currently shared by the pseudo-punk teen soap Riverdale, and the haute-camp fashion of designer Adam Selman. And the topic of “fear” is practically synonymous with our current political era, as Russian infiltrators are indicted on charges of meddling in the 2016 election, North Korea looms large, and our laptop camera lights blink on without us even knowing.
All the while, we feel that itch to see better, know more. But for Da Corte, fear is less about drawing a clear line between an “us” and a “them” than about the fact that the distinction doesn’t exist. “The monster is always somewhere—I don’t think it’s ever in the window or out of the window.” He loves the pop-psychology acronym that fear is merely “False Evidence Appearing Real,” which argues that most of the things we fear in the darkness, if embraced, are not nearly as bad as we thought. Often, in fact, we enjoy them. The artist’s neon windows are as enticing as they are spooky, as is the giant upturned velvet cat they surround, an oversize replica of a cheap lawn ornament, inspiring that niggling, titillating true-crime question, “Whodunnit?”
Da Corte’s surreal, immersive fun house is a good argument for letting go of the conventional specs of rationality. That he collaborates heavily with his friends heightens the collage feel of his work, that it has been gathered, rather than didactically planned. The musician Annie Clark, known as St. Vincent, for whom Da Corte directed her latest video, “New York,” stars in an 11-minute Hitchcockian horror film that plays at the back of the gallery (with a “very special” cat), and the artist Sam McKinniss edited a collection of horror stories from other writers and artists, with a cover by Bill Schmidt, to comprise the exhibition’s catalogue, which Da Corte calls the most important part of the show. In another current project, for Creative Time, Da Corte has made a flag replica of a drawing by the late artist Ree Morton that simply reads, “Friends.” Like watching a scary movie for the first time in a crowded theater, it helps to tackle the work together. As Da Corte put it: “What if you enter into an unfamiliar new place not with fear but with joy?”