Alexandre da Cunha, installation view of “Arena,” 2020. Photo: Maurizio Esposito, © Alexandre da Cunha, Courtesy the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery

Alexandre da Cunha

Naples, Italy

Thomas Dane Gallery

Alexandre da Cunha works in the tradition of the readymade, creating elegant sculptures from cheap and disposable everyday objects (such as mops) that he selects as much for their formal qualities as for their references to labor. Rather than forcing the viewer to consume a pre-packaged sociopolitical message, these works ask questions, encouraging reflection on how objects are fabricated and used, by whom and for whom. For “Arena,” da Cunha’s current solo exhibition (on view through March 27, 2021), curator Jenni Lomax altered the physical space of the gallery to present an enclosed site of conflict or activity. In this setting, as da Cunha explained in a recent interview with Something Curated, his works function as actors in a narrative or play, each with its own specific set of relationships.

The exhibition features 18 freestanding and wall-mounted sculptures made over the past 10 years from scythes, strip lights, parasols, paper straws, ironing boards, and tambourines, among other things. While each element references different spheres of manual or domestic labor (or lack thereof), da Cunha encourages us to contemplate the aesthetics of these objects normally just used and abused. In his hands, a pavement slab takes on the aura of a Modernist grid, while still decidedly remaining a pavement slab. The sculptures shimmer in the space between object and artwork, an effect that da Cunha achieves through two strategies. One is to cleave an object from much of its everyday-ness. For Urn V (2013), he removed the blades of a cement mixer and scraped off any remaining residue, leaving the bowl as shiny and clean as an artifact in an archaeological museum. You could almost forget that not so long ago it was churning out sludgy stuff. Another strategy is to assemble various objects of complementary or dissonant design. In the wall hanging Coconut Figure I (2020), the rust of a wheelbarrow is made earthier in relation to the leather satchel full of hairy coconuts below it, a study of the color brown that obliquely references the drudgery of lugging the fruit around during harvest.

Alexandre da Cunha, Coconut Figure I, 2020. Wheelbarrow, leather bag, and coconuts, 139.5 x 49.2 x 34.7 cm. Photo: Ben Westoby, © Alexandre da Cunha, Courtesy the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery

Some of da Cunha’s most successful pieces suggest a mysterious kind of interior logic. In these sculptures, he combines objects that are individ- ually recognizable, but whose meaning together becomes slippery, almost ungraspable. What does a tambourine have to do with a walking stick and turmeric-yellow sand held in a bronze receptacle, as in Ikebana (relief III) (2020)? The work evokes music, hiking, and painting, its height seemingly inviting interaction with each object, as though it were a pigment-producing—or pigment-collecting—instrument, the equivalent of a sci-fi maple tree tap. The wall relief is part of a series named after the Japanese art of flower arranging. While Western arrangements prefer full-frontal blooms, ikebana emphasizes stems, branches, and leaves that may or may not be twisted or covered in moss. Highlighting overlooked forms of beauty, or casting something ordinary in a new light, is as central to ikebana as it is to da Cunha’s sculptures—though the sculptures usually have more humor.

In the last room of the exhibition, Ikebana (relief II) (2020) hangs menacingly on the wall. Composed of a scythe and a weight, it is placed next to Marble (2020), an outlier in the show with its references to the body rather than labor. Consisting of a portly pink sheet draped over an inflated rubber ring, Marble riffs on the traditions of classical and Renaissance sculpture, which measured virtuosity by the artist’s ability to convincingly convey the look of fabric over flesh. Here, the viewer can toy with the fantasy of a satisfying “pop,” imagining the results if the scythe were to come into contact with the puncturable rubber. Placements such as this—surely one of conflict in da Cunha’s “Arena”present objects as metaphors of social contexts that form and deform individuals. As the material world increasingly invades the subjective, the boundaries of the self dissolve, or rather implode, like a balloon against a blade.