As we may be gradually resuming social activities after the last year and a half of isolation, “Next to You” at McEvoy Foundation for the Arts (through December 4) is abound with celebration, joy, and humor.
With more 50 artworks selected from its collection, MFA’s exhibition features mid-century black-and-white photography (one of the collection’s main focuses), contemporary photography, painting, and installation-based works from local and national artists. Most of the exhibition is firmly grounded in jovial pictorial representations, which alone could have limited the exhibition to being rather illustrative and a bit of a one-liner. Astutely, the exhibition stretches its reach through several works that use language and scores to elicit the uplifting attributes of music.
Of the many representational works, some of the most impactful are Rosalind Fox Solomon’s humorous “Foxes Masquerade, New Orleans, Louisiana” (1993); Matthew Porter’s cinematic, gravity defying “Upstate” (2014); and Amir H. Fallah’s vibrantly surreal “Life’s Eternal Dance” (2019). In portraying the unexpected, these artists offer great pleasure in looking, seeing things anew, or seeing things through the quirky lens of the artist.
Interspersed among the exhibition’s pictures, text-based works by Robert Gober, Squak Carnwath, Lava Thomas, Christine Sun Kim, Charles Gaines, and Ed Ruscha jump and skip around the gallery, almost like phrasing in a song. With the pictorial imagery providing specificity, the abstraction and imaginative qualities of these pieces give the exhibition breadth and nuance.
Of the textual works, Gober’s “Untitled” (2011) is perhaps the most enigmatic. Known for his fastidiously handmade sinks, newspapers, and wallpaper, Gober’s seemingly modest works appears to be an official score for the lyrics of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from “The Sound of Music,” complete with copyright. However, the work is described as a “potato print,” an arts-and-crafts kid’s project where potatoes are carved to make stamps. With Gober’s OCD crafting, the artist has created a letter-set-perfect printing process that transforms a banal and unlikely potato into a fine art printing tool. Moreover, as the rather campy lyrics grandly affirm the pursuit of one’s goals, Gober humorous implicates his own maniacal process.
With much bolder visual dynamics and a painterly hand, Carnwarth’s blue text-based painting “Frank,” (2014) pays tribute to Frank Sinatra, “Ol’ Blue Eyes.” Listing song titles like “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Fly Me To The Moon,” “You Make Me Feel so Young,” and of course “My Way,” Carnwark evokes the mawkish love songs of the legendary crooner. While reading the song titles, some viewers my find the melodies and Sinatra’s signature phrasing playing in backgrounds of their minds, evoking the fabulousness epitomized in Rat Pack Vegas lounge acts.
Moving into installation, Lava Thomas’ “Illuminated Anthem,” (2018) takes a more poetic and political tone. On one wall in the large gallery, a black rectangle painted across the length of the wall holds space for 49 tambourines arranged in two conjoined diamond shapes. With mirrors mounted on tambourines, Thomas creates a set of glimmering reflections.
Additionally, Thomas presents tambourines mounted with metallicized leather that are etched with the first stanza of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (1900), a hymn written by James Weldon Johnson. Considered to be the Black National Anthem, the hymn rallied individuals to collective action during the Civil Rights Movement. As the piece holds space in the gallery, it offers moments of reflection, literally and poetically, for viewers to pay tribute to the history and spirit that has attempted to move us closer to equity and justice.
As we prime ourselves for social life again, the works in “Next to You” offer a range of celebratory moments for viewers to vicariously participate in. While the works are silent, the gallery is resonant with music that many of us know in our bones and minds.
“Next to You” runs through December 4 at McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, SF. More info here.