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McEvoy Foundation for the Arts in Dogpatch celebrates the City’s masked reopening with Next to You,an ode to in-person gatherings. The exhibition features 52 pieces from the McEvoy Family Collection, with a focus on performing arts and public spaces. 

The gallery positions the show as “a farewell ballad to a strange and challenging time and a look forward to a future where we are reunited” as we exit the pandemic’s “requisite isolation.” The result, however, is more of a nostalgia trip to a social landscape we may never return to exactly the way we remember it, given the unpredictable and dynamic nature of the continued health crisis. 

In Where’s the Party At, 1995, expressionistic painter Michelangelo Lovelace renders a dance party in thick acrylic brushwork. A diverse cast of cartoony bodies flail in ecstasy beneath a DJ, the classic 1980s lyrics “the roof is on fire” emblazoned across the stage. Other paintings and photographs show dancers and parties, masquerades and concerts; even a Star Trek convention. The representations induce more longing than excitement.

Francis Cape’s Utopian Benches, 2011, a set of 17 elegant wooden benches, which occupy the gallery’s central floorspace, has a similar effect. The pews imply communion, secular or otherwise, in the face of the forced individualism of social isolation. The piece’s effect, however, is to underscore recent experiences of isolation when a visitor finds themselves sitting alone in the gallery wondering, as Lovelace does, where is the party at? If the show is “a farewell ballad”, then what it says goodbye to is a suddenly – and sadly – outdated culture where community was taken for granted.

Jill Freedman’s photograph Blondie Warhol, Studio 54, 1979, is a comical historical document that shows Debbie Harry voguing for another photographer in front of a wall-sized enlargement of her own face. In the foreground a slightly out of focus Andy Warhol hunches in conversation with another woman. The picture evokes the performativity in social situations that, even at its most innocuous, seems extravagant after a year and a half of unmasked aloneness.

Hans Breder’s Untitled, 1972, from the artist’s photo series Body/Sculptures, shows two intertwined human figures bisected by a pair of mirrors, a kaleidoscope of tangled legs and torsos. The embrace, underscored by a kind of excess in the reflections, is the cathartic opposite of social distance. This motif is repeated in an Irving Penn photograph of two pairs of nude dancers embracing, and Alex Prager’s birds-eye view picture of a tightly packed crowd.

Because Next to You employs artworks made in a pre-pandemic world to envision a future that’ll be marked by COVID in ways we can’t imagine, it never quite gels as a vision of the future. The show is best appreciated as a collection of strong independent submissions, rather than a thematic chorus. It’s an apt metaphor for the most bittersweet lesson the pandemic has taught us: even when we’re side by side, we’re all alone.

Next to You is on view at McEvoy Foundation for the Arts through December 4.

Photo: Where’s the Party At. Michaelangelo Lovelace. 1995. Courtesy of McEvoy Foundation for the Arts

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