NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — A group of 16 kindergartners on a tour of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art here stumbled upon a gallery last week where a show was being installed and the children halted in their tracks.
“Look!” said one boy, pointing across a room made eerie by blue and red neon. “Real water! Real ducks!” The water was indeed real, in a shallow white pond where the light made it look like strawberry milk. The ducks were actually swans, motorized plastic ones, circling one another in the water with fake candles rising from their backs.
If the scene felt like a contemporary-art remake of “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” its creator, the Philadelphia artist Alex Da Corte, didn’t look the part of that top-hatted pied piper. A boyish 35, he was dressed that morning in a threadbare T-shirt and a crumpled Lacoste cap that had been worn nearly to death. He was walking in his socks through galleries where he and a band of devoted friends and assistants had been working for weeks to perfect thousands of tiny details for the most ambitious show of his career, “Free Roses,” which just went on view and continues through January.
The immersive world the exhibition creates can seem Wonka-ish, candy-colored and animated, with deranged elements like mirror-striped floors, flying bats, plastic fruits and vegetables, a giant hoagie made of rubber, and a sculptural rendition of the couch in “The Simpsons.” But Mr. Da Corte, who has become highly sought-after in recent years for a riotous post-post-Pop sensibility, significantly darkens the picture around the corner from the romantic swans, where a video shows a man (Mr. Da Corte’s boyfriend at the time) shooting a syringe-full of Coca-Cola into his arm, drawn from a plastic liter bottle, in a work inspired by Rimbaud’s “A Season in Hell.”
As he once described it, his goal is to challenge the “rules that we have for what is beauty or what is optimism,” moving beyond kitsch and Pop irony into a kind of late-capitalist sublime that can be ravishing and terrifying at the same time.
“If taste is the thing that guides you,” Mr. Da Corte (pronounced da-COR-tah) said in an interview during an installation break, “then how can you step outside that and try to look at everything every day as if it’s new? To live somewhere up here?” He made a gesture with both hands to the space above his head, and added: “I always like to hope that I have no taste, which is not the same thing as tastelessness.”
Mr. Da Corte’s art-world reputation as something of a gleefully sinister provocateur is belied in person; he is affable, humble and speaks with great clarity about the art-historical underpinnings of his work. He grew up around Philadelphia in a large, extended, close-knit family and spent several years as a child in Caracas, Venezuela, where his father was born and raised. The electric colors and material exuberance that have become his trademarks derive partly from that South American heritage. “Piñata parties were real,” he said. “They were a very big deal. And I remember waking up every day and seeing mangoes on the ground, which didn’t happen in Pennsylvania.”Continue reading the main story