Gorgeous (the Wall Labels)

Shotgun Review

Gorgeous (the Wall Labels)

By Patricia Maloney September 24, 2014

My favorite part of the exhibition Gorgeous, on view at the Asian Art Museum this summer, was the wall labels. This is not to disparage the exhibition itself, which was assembled from the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Asian. As the curators from both institutions acknowledged, it is difficult to craft a coherent historical argument when juxtaposing work from the past 2,200 years with work made in the last century, from disparate parts of the world, and created for very different concepts of contemplation or worship. Instead, they chose a formalistic approach to produce an exhibition that focused on the sensual qualities of medium, pattern, composition, and subject matter. Granted, we had to contend with associative groupings whose titles resembled those of celebrity-branded perfumes: “Seduction,” “Danger,” and “Fantasy” were a few on offer. But overall, the exhibition allowed viewers to coat-check the insecurities arising from the art-historical ignorance that both collections can engender and fully delve into the pleasures of seeing.

Normally, wall texts are antithetical to immersive visual experiences. In this case, the Asian’s Allison Harding and Forrest McGill craft texts that are less like authoritative institutional voices and more like affable friends accompanying one through the galleries. At times, these voices seem to compete for our attention, and even bicker, the slightly irreverent and informal tone McGill sustains throughout in competition with Harding’s more traditional discursive approach. Take, for example, their commentary on Janine Antoni’s self-portrait busts, Lick and Lather (1993–1994), made from soap and chocolate. McGill suggests, “Imagine licking down the chocolate version of your self-portrait…you are ingesting what? Your surface, your self?” while Harding observes “It explores consumption, decay, and ruin alongside ideals of beauty. It blurs lines between performance and sculpture.”

Janine Antoni, Lick and Lather, 1993-1994; two self-portrait busts: one chocolate and one soap. Collection of Carla Emil and Rich Silverstein and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. © Janine Antoni. 

Both seem cognizant of the insecurities that attend the viewing of unfamiliar work. McGill tries to allay them with frank observations and inquisitiveness that can be simplistic at some turns but hit the mark when he’s sharing seemingly off-the-cuff comments that put a viewer at ease. Yes, that is a very large penis, he acknowledges candidly about the Mapplethorpe photograph of the nude male seated on a pedestal, his legs spread wide. Alternatively, Harding seems to stick to the script of playing the straight man in this duo. But her descriptions are poetic, alluring, and effortless in conveying both the visual intricacies and meaning of what we’re seeing. We sense the desolation and the poignancy of Misrach’s abandoned swimming pool as much from her words as his stark photograph.

But what sets these didactic materials apart from traditional museum wall labels is the curators’ willingness to part the curtains and give viewers insight into what happens behind the scenes when putting an exhibition together. In these texts, we receive glimpses into their decision-making process, the conditions of viewing they encounter outside the gallery, their conversations when choosing one object over another. They take us into storage with them, where McGill admits the difficulty in appreciating the beauty of a revered Buddhist statue when it’s under fluorescent lights and laments having to look at something at a height that’s not conducive to appreciating it. Suddenly, the art is untethered from the conditions of being “In Bounds” or “Beyond Imperfection,” no longer freighted with the history of place and culture. It’s simply here in this space for us to look at. Instead of getting in the way, the wall text reminds us how much there is to see.


Gorgeous is on view at Asian Art Museum, in

San Francisco

, through September 14, 2014.

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