McEvoy Foundation for the Arts’ current exhibition, Next to You, is a fitting farewell to a year of isolation. The thematic group exhibition celebrates communal, lived experiences mainly through two-dimensional artworks that depict performances, dances, music, nightclubs, pageants. Next to You plays in the space between these ephemeral moments and the photography, drawings, paintings, and art installations that serve as their record. With static works that recall transient experiences, the exhibition elicits an all-too-familiar longing for community and gathering after a year that required mediating our experiences of such through screens.
The exhibition, which features 52 works by as many artists — all drawn from the McEvoy Foundation’s collection — opens with a series of photographs and drawings that juxtapose empty spaces and lone figures with the type of crowded, un-masked conviviality which can still feel unnatural. Consistently midsize and linearly arranged, the works in the first gallery vacillate from the blank, white screen and empty theatre of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Stanley, New Jersey to Jill Freedman’s Blondie Warhol, Studio 54 and Louis Faurer’s Repaving Times Square (Edge of Doom), in which the figures’ proximity is practically palpable. These pairings conjure a recognition and sense of surreal unfamiliarity that mirror the strange and mundane experiences of the past year, making Next to You a type of curatorial time capsule akin to the preservation of specific times and places demonstrated in these photographs.
Amir H. Fallah’s Life Eternal Dance—a large, electrically colored circular painting—is flanked on either side by the works mentioned above. From the rounded edges of the canvas, figures and flora from myriad cultures grasp towards an open, hot orange center. Fallah’s work disregards the specificity of time and place that grounds the surrounding photographs. Instead, the painter’s reach encompasses the hybridity of the immigrant experience while suggesting optimism that counters the melancholy undercurrent of the other works in the gallery. Rather than mourn what was lost, Fallah’s imagery prods us to celebrate the nuanced, contradictory, and beautiful experiences that (we hope) lay ahead.
The neighboring gallery, the largest in Next to You, is filled with a flurry of performers caught in black-and-white photographs as they shake, twist and gyrate. Thomas Ruff’s press++30.42
commands the back wall of the space and shows a young woman in mid-spin, her skirt billowing around her body, along with handwritten lines of text filling the negative space surrounding her. Fred W. McDarrah’s 1959 photograph of Jack Kerouac reading to a rapt New York audience sits alongside a Sabine Weiss image from 1960 of an unnamed dancer on pilgrimage to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in France. Other works silently reference the sound and music that animates these figures. Lava Thomas’ Illuminated Anthem fills an adjacent wall with mirrored tambourines engraved with phrases from Lift Every Voice and Sing—a hymn referred to in the United States as the Black National Anthem. Nearby, Charles Gaines underlays the words spoken by Black Panther Party member Stokely Carmichael beneath the score of Manuel de Falla’s tragic opera, La Vida Breve. I cannot help but feel a pang of want for motion, music, and sound while viewing these works in an empty gallery—utterly silent save for the occasional sound of shoes clacking on hard floor.
Francis Cape’s Utopian Benches, the sole sculptural work in the exhibition, fills the center of the second gallery. Seventeen benches hand-made from poplar wood recall the labor-intensive craft of 19th-century American intentional communities such as the Shakers. Cape writes of this work as a communal space, constructed during a different time for open meetings and discussion forums. In Next to You, Cape’s benches patiently await and invite the warmth of gathered bodies.
The third and final gallery of the exhibition takes a broader approach to what constitutes performance, highlighting the costume and ritual of everyday social events. Painstakingly staged photographs such as Vanessa Beecroft’s VBGDW and Alex Prager’s Crowd #2 (Emma) belie the elaborate and socially constructed costume that constitutes our outward appearances. Neighboring photographs documenting a beauty pageant, a Star Trek convention, and a wedding simultaneously point to the ceremony and performance implicit in the gatherings we have missed for the past year. In the center of the final gallery, Squeak Carnwath’s Frank proclaims, “The way you look tonight…just one of those things,” recalling the magic buoyancy of a night out with the right person. After a year of yoga pants, Zoom rooms, and delivery meals, Carnwath’s lusciously painted words coupled with the familiar yet foreign scenes throughout Next to You ignite a pang of recognition and want in the pit of my stomach.
As we slowly emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, Next to You recalls what we’ve missed—music, live performance, dance, costume—while pointing to a future in which these events exist again. By foregrounding movement, touch, and the ritual of togetherness, the exhibition memorializes what we lost during a year of seclusion. Viewing static artworks that evoke these bodily experiences amplifies a yearning for the scenes and sensation depicted in the exhibition: sweaty dance parties, packed performances and readings, loud concerts, unabated touch and embrace. As Next to You deftly reminds us, these moments await us in the near future.
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“Next to You” @ McEvoy Foundation for the Arts through December 4, 2021.