Asian Art Museum and SFMOMA Explore what Gorgeous Means

BeyondBelief_12_Rothko_No.14.jpg
Courtesy of SFMOMA
Mark Rothko, Number 14

For the first time, two major San Francisco museums -- the Asian Art Museum and SFMOMA -- will have a show combining star pieces from their collections. Gorgeous, which opens on June 20, with 72 works of art spanning more than 2,000 years and organized into loose groupings (including "Seduction," "Fantasy," and "Danger,") goes beyond beauty. For thousands of years, there have been academic discourses on beauty. But this show isn't about that.

"We're more interested in the outliers," says Allison Harding, the assistant curator of contemporary art at the Asian Art Museum. "Exaggeration or kitsch have a way of provoking people to think about what their personal boundaries are, and what their assumptions and preconceptions are. That visceral reaction is part of the work."

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Courtesy of Asian Art Museum,
Summer gatherings in mountain villas, 1738, by Hua Yan (Chinese, 1682-1756)

To encourage that visceral reaction, the show's organizers have taken a different approach to the text and panels that go with the exhibit, making it more conversational and less scholarly.

"A lot of times when we go to museum, we glance at the work and really look first at what the curator has to say," says Harding. "It's really different for the Asian putting the emphasis less on context and putting it more in the visitor's camp."

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Courtesy of SFMOMA
Strut , 2004-2005, by Marilyn Minter

Gorgeous centers on the viewer, agrees Caitlin Haskell, assistant curator of painting and sculpture at SFMOMA; she also wrote an essay for the show's catalog entitled "Just Looking."

"With modern art in conversation with ancient objects, you don't have to be quite so concerned with cultural context," adds Haskell. "It's about letting the work work on you and just engaging with the object."

Some of those objects include the torso of a female deity from India, Jeff Koons' Michael Jackson and Bubbles, an elaborate Burmese Buddhist bowl, and a painting by Mark Rothko.

The exhibit isn't meant to contrast and compare East and West. Rather, Haskell notes, the idea is to take what we've learned from 20th century art about awareness of color and shape and form and apply it to the historical objects from the Asian's collection.

They avoided pairing up pieces from the collections one on one, says Harding. "These objects don't speak the same languages- they're coming out of different histories... They're incredible works of art and we wanted to let each object speak on its own terms."

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Courtesy of Asian Art Museum,
Mythical bird-man, approx. 1775-1850. Central Thailand

Harding and Jay Xu, the director of the Asian Art Museum, say the groupings help with this.

"They show similar ideas in very different ways," Xu notes. "My vision is about connecting art to life and the personal, visceral reaction to art we encounter. This is an open-ended exploration of what constitutes gorgeous."

The museum will throw a party on Friday night, "Grit and Glamour," complete with nail art, DJs, and a runway show of voguing to kick off Gorgeous. Like the show, Harding notes the the party encourages people to jump right in.

"It's sort of a one-night microcosm of what we want to create with the exhibition," she says. ""In my eyes it's about experience and participation. San Francisco has so many different cultures and the party brings a lot of elements together."


Gorgeous is on view June 20 through Sept. 14, 2014, at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin Street. Tickets are $10-$15, free for members and children 12 and under. The opening night party on June 20 from 7pm to 11pm, "Grit and Glamour," is $20-$25. For tickets, call 581-3531.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook

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