First Images: SFMOMA’s ‘Close To Home’ Exhibits the Art of Isolation

“I am so utterly lonely, but I also have such a fear that my isolation be broken through, and I no longer be the head and ruler of my universe.” – Anaïs Nin

Isolation is a curious thing. Surely the constant self-examinations that accompany loneliness can quickly turn to self-incriminations. Yet artists (think Emily Dickinson, Yayoi Kusama) have often craved and/or thrived in solitude.

Fortunately, but surely also inevitably, we’ve started to discern the artistic fallout from the months of forced isolation that resulted from this still aggressively carrying on coronavirus crisis—from music videos, to television shows, to the visual arts, all incisively addressing our confusion, worry and despondency. And so, fittingly, San Francisco’s recently reopened SFMOMA will present possibly the first (that we know of) exhibition gathering the “art of the pandemic.”

Carolyn Drake, Isolation Therapy, 2020; courtesy the artist; © Carolyn Drake

Indeed, this December 19 the museum will open Close To Home: Creativity in Crisis, which juxtaposes the output of seven artists, all of which work was conjured during the last seven months of universal quarantine. The fact that all seven—Carolyn Drake, Rodney Ewing, Andres Gonzalez, James Gouldthorpe, Klea McKenna, Tucker Nichols and Woody De Othello—are from the Bay Area gives it an almost metaphorical sense of claustrophobia, further emphasizing the point that since the lockdown orders came, our world’s have gotten incredibly small…even for those living in big cities.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the way parameters can spur creativity, instead of limiting it,” explains Corey Keller, curator of photography at SFMOMA. “When the pandemic struck and we were all confined to home, artists also had to adapt to these newly constrained circumstances. I was struck by the way Bay Area artists found ways to respond to the crisis, expressing anxiety and loss, of course, but also joy and optimism.”

Particularly riveting, Gouldthorpe‘s eerie Covid Artifact 20 suggests either flowers or some sort of disease growing out of what might actually be a styrofoam pin cushion—make of it what you will. But Ewing, for one, has always employed his creative vigor to confront and examine difficult and controversial topics, most especially race and religion. His work included here, though, seems more personal, conveying a palpable sense of despair, and a hauntedness that implies a kind of forced emotional distancing.

Experimental photographer McKenna—daughter of the late psychedelic guru and author Terrence McKenna—is renowned for her provocative use of unusual materials to create startling visual trickery. And in her No Feeling is Final, cut up pieces of fabric seem to propose a shattering of sorts…while also indicating indestructible beauty beneath the fracture.

Klea McKenna, No Feeling is Final, 2020 (detail); courtesy the artist, Euqinom Gallery, San Francisco, and
Gitterman Gallery, New York; © Klea McKenna

But most intriguing is photographer Drake‘s Isolation Therapy, which can be interpreted as presenting a disfigured view of nature itself, a kind of horror sculpture that is also rife with melancholy.

Taken together, it’s a startlingly visceral artistic snapshot of a 2020 that has left most of us grasping for some manner of understanding, and even more so, hope.

As Ewing puts it, “I think it’s important that we document this time and that it is represented in a variety of forms. The use of ‘windows’ and ‘mirrors’ are essential for relaying the events that have transpired during this time, both creatively and politically.”

Close To Home: Creativity in Crisis will be on show from December 19 to May 9, 2021 at SFMOMA.


Rodney Ewing, One Has to Be (George Junius Stinney, Jr.), 2020; courtesy the artist; © Rodney Ewing
James Gouldthorpe, Covid Artifact 20, 2020; © James Gouldthorpe
. James Gouldthorpe, Covid Artifact 20, 2020; © James Gouldthorpe

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