Asian Art Museum & SFMOMA Make a “Gorgeous” Team

by Sura Wood

This collaborative exhibition presents works selected by several different curators that explores the sometimes complicated pleasure derived from art.

Gorgeous—a subjective term that suggests a magnificence transcending conventional beauty—is the jumping off point for a provocative new show opening this month at the Asian Art Museum. Designed to bewitch, “Gorgeous” is a collaborative project between the Asian and SFMOMA, the latest of several partnerships SFMOMA has developed with local venues to keep its permanent collection in public view while the facility undergoes a major renovation. Drawn equally from both museums’ collections, each of the exhibition’s nearly 80 objects elicited a strong personal response from the curators, who brainstormed over a two-year period and ultimately chose works by an eclectic group of artists from Picasso, Miro, Duchamp, de Kooning, Yves Klein and Marilyn Minter to unknown artisans from India, Japan, Persia and China and many others.

“This is a show that calls attention to how we experience art and the pleasure that we receive from it,” says Allison Harding, the Asian’s assistant curator of contemporary art. “It’s not so much about neatly constructed perceptions of beauty as what happens when beauty is pushed to extremes and becomes provocative.”

“Restraint can also be gorgeous,” adds Caitlin Haskell, SFMOMA’s assistant curator of painting and sculpture. “Or sometimes you fall in love with a piece for a single characteristic, like the bright red of the Qing Dynasty lacquer chair [in the exhibition] or the high-key, glow-in-the-dark colors of Chris Ofili’s ‘Princess of the Posse’ (1999),” a bejeweled collage of a flirtatious young woman in tribal regalia, “where the ornamentation exudes a more, more, more sensibility. It exerts a force on you, you get locked in on it and it’s hard to pull away.” Forrest McGill, Wattis senior curator of South and Southeast Asian art, concedes he selected “Mythical bird-man” (approx. 1775-1850), a magical gilded wood sculpture of a winged hybrid creature from Thailand, simply because it’s one of his favorites. “We humans seem always to have been fascinated by composite creatures, whether frightening ones like minotaurs or beguiling ones like mermaids,”he writes in the catalogue. “I confess I’m smitten… For me, this work, more than any other suggests the dreamed-for ideal of universal sympathy.”

The exhibition invites visitors to make associations and reflect on what strikes them, whether contemplating the angular contours and primitive brushstrokes that obscure the enticing attributes of de Kooning’s “Woman” (1950) or the endless ultramarine blue of Yves Klein’s “Sponge.” The latter, a biomorphic sculpture mounted on a steel rod and anchored to a rock, resembles an extraterrestrial flower. But, Harding stresses, when engaging with the art, scholarly debate and historical theory should take a back seat. “It’s about you in that moment, in front of that object, asking: Is this beautiful to me? Does it move me? Does it attract or repulse me? Does it push me into an evocative realm that has nothing to do with this artwork itself?”

Covering 2,200 years of art and multiple cultures, the paintings, sculptures, assemblages, photographs and installations, ancient and modern, have been grouped together into categories with titles intended to tantalize: Seduction, Evocation, Fantasy, Beyond Imperfection, Pose and Danger.

A section called Dress Up addresses theatricality, focusing on deception—the act of costuming, or pretending to be another person. Those things apply to “Futago” (1988), a painting by the New York-based, Japanese “sexual appropriation” artist Yasumasa Morimura, who raises questions of gender identity and Western infiltration of Japanese culture in his recreation of Edouard Manet’s masterpiece “Olympia” (1863). Morimura, who has inserted his image into works by Renoir and Rembrandt and posed as the Mona Lisa, implicates the history of Manet’s painting; it scandalized the Paris Salon and tweaked 19th-century sensibilities because of its frank depiction of a courtesan as a flesh-and-blood woman rather than an idealized nude. But Morimura raises the stakes, masquerading not only as Olympia, who’s posed like Venus on a satin-covered divan, but also as the black maid. It’s a transgressive portrait that blurs lines between East and West as well as male and female, breaking taboos of gender and race while inspiring a double take on the part of the viewer.

“I expect there to be a lot of disagreement about what’s transgressive or taboo in this exhibition,” notes Harding. “Of course, what’s transgressive to one person may not be to another.”

Damage, loss, age and decay conspire to make objects alluring in one of the most intriguing sections, aptly titled “Beyond Imperfection.” It includes a strangely affecting, doll-like, armless tomb figurine from China’s Han Dynasty, whose broken condition arouses compassion and speculation about its enigmatic origins, and an intricately carved stone torso of a once-voluptuous female deity from Southern India (1400-1600) whose appeal has only been enhanced by the passage of time and the damage it suffered. In Bruce Conner’s “Looking Glass” (1964), an assemblage Harding compares to “the trashcan of a washed-up burlesque dancer,” parts of a dismembered mannequin are stuffed onto masonite shelving along with a discarded shoe, an old pair of nylons, bits of dried blowfish, fur remnants, collaged snapshots and scraps from magazines.

But if there’s one work that encapsulates the show, says Harding, it’s Marilyn Minter’s “Strut” (2004-2005). Minter started with a larger-than-life-sized photograph of a grime-covered heel in an iridescent Dior stiletto, and then painted voluptuous layers of enamel on metal that give the piece a charged intensity. The magnified, fetishized object becomes a seductive, eight-foot-tall image of the foot of an apparent giantess. It calls to mind the connections Freud made between the stiletto and castration, while the glitter and the woman’s filthy heel imply danger and mystery. “How did she become dirty?” wonders Harding. “Was she out dancing all night and her feet got wet or did something terrible happen to her? This work gets at an exquisite tension between attraction and repulsion, between objects and ideas, that’s so much about the gorgeous. Being stuck in that middle zone is where we can really feel a great work of art.”

June 20 → Sept. 14

Asian Art Museum

200 Larkin St., 415/581-3711