Asian Art Museum’s ‘Gorgeous’ has no claims on what’s beautiful 

“Gorgeous,” an unusual new exhibit at the Asian Art Museum, is a wild mixture of many things, but museum Director Jay Xu emphasizes what it is not: “The curatorial team ... did not attempt grand statements contrasting the traditional and the modern, or opposing East and West. Instead, they planned an exhibition that would focus on ‘just looking,’” Xu said at a media preview for the show, which opens Friday.

Running through Sept. 14, the exhibition — the first collaboration between the Asian Art Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which is closed for renovation — features 72 works that, curators say, “extend beyond conventional notions of beauty.”

Ancient Asian objects are displayed side by side with still-provocative works by Joan Miro, Robert Mapplethorpe and Pablo Picasso. Sacred objects from Southeast Asia are near contemporary consumer goods such as a first-generation iPhone and a gold-plated coke spoon by Tobias Wong.

Co-curator Forrest McGill says, “Multiple impressions and associations, and information overload may leave us numb. A question as seemingly straightforward as, ‘Do I find it gorgeous?’ may become unanswerable.”

As it is often said, beauty — or gorgeousness — is in the eye of the beholder. This exhibit emphatically encourages visitors to assess and debate the works on their own terms, rather than rely on preconceived notions or guidance from the museum. To that end, descriptions of each piece are accompanied by fun, enlightening and personal commentary by McGill and co-curator Allison Harding, both staff members of the Asian Art Museum.

If Jeff Koons’ bizarre porcelain-and-gold statue of Michael Jackson and Bubbles has a possible relationship to the 200-year-old Indian watercolor “Forlorn Woman on a Terrace,” the context comes from a particular individual’s sensibility.

It may be a challenge to describe a Mapplethorpe photographic nude, Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s photo “Marilyn” of a transvestite, Mark Rothko’s painting “No. 14, 1960” or designer Hartmut Esslinger’s Yamaha Frog 750 bike prototype — from SFMOMA — as more gorgeous than the Asian museum’s representations of the Buddha, or even the bizarre 18th-century Thai sculpture Mythical bird-man, but each work needs to be seen on its own terms.

An interactive display with reproductions of artworks allows visitors to curate their own exhibition, and amusing on-the-street videos reveal what some San Franciscans consider gorgeous.

Some of the works, such as American painter John Currin’s oil “Laughing Nude,” may push boundaries, the curators admit: “They balance on the tipping point between the seductive and the repulsive, the disturbing and the comforting, the intimate and the ironic, the serene and the obsessive.”



Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., S.F.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, except open until 9 p.m. Thursdays; closes Sept. 14

Tickets: $10 to $15 ($5 after 5 p.m. Thursdays)

Contact: (415) 581-3500,

About The Author

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben is a writer and columnist for SF Classical Voice; he has worked as writer and editor with the NY Herald-Tribune, TIME Inc., UPI, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, San Jose Mercury News, Post Newspaper Group, and wrote documentation for various technology companies.
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