Shotgun Review


By Roula Seikaly September 24, 2014

“Gorgeous” is a well-worn word, one often trotted out when describing experiential moments in art, music, design, architecture, and fashion. In collaboration with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), Asian Art Museum curators Allison Harding and Forrest McGill settled on the adjective as both title and organizing concept for an exhibition highlighting pieces from their collection and art on loan from SFMOMA that visualize beauty and its darker inversions or incarnations.

Gorgeous can be described as experimental, more so than the other SFMOMA On the Go exhibitions that include borrowed work from the museum’s collection. It’s experimental because the Asian Art Museum is not an obvious choice for the display of contemporary art. Experimental, also, because the unusual nature of the exhibition encouraged Harding and McGill to engage audiences in a discussion of sorts rather than maintain the formal, authoritative curatorial distance that generally defines didactic materials in fine-art exhibitions.

Gorgeous is clearly not concerned with comparison or assigning value to Eastern and Western art. Instead, we are encouraged to consider juxtapositions—such as Marilyn Minter’s photograph Strut (2004–05), which showcases a dirty foot atop a glamorous stiletto heel, and a slouching Japanese water jar (mizusashi) (1573–1615)—and to ponder the beauty found in what is ugly or imperfect. As such, Jeff Koons’ life-size porcelain sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988), a kitsch classic in which the late superstar is envisioned embracing a chimp in a creepy/fabulous paternal manner, is exhibited opposite the lush landscape of Yuan Yao’s Hall of Green Wilderness (1770). These two objects are separated by centuries in their creation yet are united by similar initial critical responses that deemed them “too popular.” Their presence here demonstrates that a finicky viewing audience isn’t only a contemporary concern.

Gorgeous; installation view, the Asian Art Museum, July 20–September 14, 2014. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

Inspired moments occur throughout the exhibition, including an intimate installation of Mark Rothko’s luminous painting No. 14 (1960), the painted cloth Mandala of the Buddhist Deity Vajrabhairava (1650–1750, Tibet), and a statue of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (1600–1700, China), which are brought together under the rubric “On Reflection.” The small gallery is dominated by No. 14, which is the first object seen upon entering. The mandala, which mirrors in blues and oranges the colors of No. 14, is miniscule in size yet holds its own next to the painting and gilded bronze statue, united by their designation as objects for contemplation. Another satisfying installation choice links the second and third galleries. Hundreds of strands of hanging gold-colored beads in Félix González-Torres’s Untitled (Golden) (1995) create a heavy, shimmering drape on and through which light moves magically. Untitled (Golden) is presented alongside Piet Mondrian’s painting Composition (No. III) Blanc-Jaune/Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue (1935/1942), and a square Korean wrapping cloth (bojagi), which were created by women as a form of self-expression within a heavily regulated social milieu. Displayed under the heading "In Bounds," Gonzalez Torres' beads rebel against the rule of line in favor of movement and sound. By contrast, the bojagi appears to honor material, cultural, and linear limitations, but transcends the bounds of the four-sided form through improvised arrangements of colors and shapes.

Where the exhibition falters is in its language. I lost count of how many times the word “gorgeous” appears on labels throughout the exhibition, not to mention “the gorgeous,” which reads as the curators’ clumsy attempt to align their premise with established philosophical principles such as “the sublime.” The repetition suggests that the curators tried very hard to convince audiences, and themselves perhaps, that their assertions about what is beautiful or grotesque, and the schema in which they are presented, merit dedicated consideration. As an experiment, Gorgeous signals an adventurous direction in which the Asian Art Museum could head, particularly in the collection and display of contemporary art. As a fully realized exhibition, however, there is simply too much resting on a single, heavily burdened word for audiences to exit the exhibition with a clear sense of the objects and how they relate to each other.


Gorgeous is on view at Asian Art Museum, in

San Francisco

, through September 14, 2014.

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