Hello, Gorgeous: curiosity and curatorship at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

Yesterday I went with my Meetup group to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, where we saw their strange and fascinating summer exhibition, Gorgeous. Typically, museums focus their shows around a particular artist (or collection of artists), time period, style, or place, but Gorgeous did none of that. It’s at the Asian Art Museum, but it also brought in pieces from SFMOMA (currently under renovation), so we saw, for instance, centuries-old Indian statues alongside photos taken by American photographers in the last decade, or a gold-leafed copy of the Qur’an near a chair made of clear plastic and artificial roses.

Gorgeous photos from the museum’s website, www.asianart.org

Qur’an, approx. 1550. Iran; Shiraz.

16th-century Qur'an, Iran.

It’s an intriguing title: what is “gorgeous”, anyway? Do we have a simple answer to that? The exhibition opens with a wall bearing the word GORGEOUS in large serif capitals split and cut out to reveal mirrors behind; facing this, a TV plays a loop of San Franciscans explaining what “gorgeous” means to them. Rather than giving us a definition, the curators are quite open about not having one — or not having only one. The exhibition is loosely grouped around themes such as Seduction, Reiteration, or Dress Up, and many of the descriptive placards offer, besides the usual information, the curators’ opinions.

apologies for image quality; I used my phone rather than my good camera

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These remarks were sometimes chatty to the point of irreverence. At first that casualness bothered me, but as I continued walking through the four galleries of the exhibition, I came to appreciate it very much. It made Gorgeous feel less like “look at this Art” and more like a conversation. In fact, since there are two curators and the placards indicated whose comments were whose, the conversational aspect was explicit. In an age when I can Tweet at my favorite authors or institutions and have them write back, this conversationality makes sense. Moreover, I suspect that museum curation is often less stuffy (or organized) than we laypeople might expect, so it’s rather nice to have some transparency around what pieces were chosen and how and why.

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The mix of contemporary and ancient, Asian and non-Asian, is itself a statement on what passes for gorgeous. In the West, “gorgeous” so often privileges a European history and perspective, with a Greco-Roman classical ideal and veneration of a particular style of (mostly young white) beauty. And when it doesn’t, non-Westerners are often exoticized, their artistic styles borrowed and transformed. But here we had multiple traditions and eras all hanging out together, displaying many different interpretations of gorgeousness. As a person of fluid identities myself, I appreciated that.*

torso of female deity, 1400-1600. Southern India

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geishas from Three Types of Beauties in Edo, approx. 1798-1829. Chobunsai Eishi

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SFMOMA. Strut, 2004-05. Marilyn Minter. 

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One of my Meetup members, Roger, wondered whether the word “gorgeous” has anything to do with “gorge,” as in, to gorge oneself on something delicious. Apparently not, but I like that connection; there certainly is, in my understanding of “gorgeous,” something of excess. Beauty can be restrained, but there is a lushness to something gorgeous, and I felt that in the pieces in the exhibition. When some of us were talking it over afterward, multiple people admitted to feeling sensory overload. I felt it too, but I also felt stimulated. I walked through the permanent exhibits after Gorgeous and I was still seeing everything through this hard-to-explain lens of gorgeousness. Colors, textures, size, patterns, multiplicity — it all jumped out at me.

from the permanent collection

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I have been to many museums in the past few years, but I don’t always write about my visits, and when I do, I rarely have much comment on the exhibitions. The last time I wrote about one at this particular museum, I griped that I wanted more context. My training is in history, and I do generally appreciate historical context in art museums, but Gorgeous — for once — showed me a kind of context that isn’t limited to chronology. While we got some notes about time period or artist bio, there wasn’t always a lot of context for individual pieces (and indeed, sometimes there was quite openly none or quite openly a wondering about context); what we got, instead, was context on a process: the selection of these pieces, the choice for how they were placed together. I realize now that this touches on what I want from an art museum, as opposed to a history museum. I left yesterday feeling like I learned something about art and curatorship, and so much the better because it wasn’t necessarily what I would have expected to learn about these topics. Gorgeous hit so many of my buttons: unexpected juxtaposition, breadth, oddity, playfulness, specificity and individuality (it was really possible, and not too physically or mentally exhausting, to look at every single piece). I don’t know if others might find the exhibition too much of a mishmash, but for me, that seeming incoherence is precisely where I find excitement and meaning.

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(Not to mention, art galleries themselves have suddenly become much more interesting to me, because I just found out my kitchen portraits have been accepted to the APAture visual arts show this fall!)

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Bay Area folks: Gorgeous will be at the Asian Art Museum through September 14. Go!

*Non-Asian artworks were still mostly European and US American, however.

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8 responses to “Hello, Gorgeous: curiosity and curatorship at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

  1. Your perspective of this show really inspires my Inner Critic… and I mean the good kind. I’ve been practicing my critique skills recently, perhaps I’ll follow your lead & publish a review as well! Gorgeous truly is a Gorgeous exhibit. Thank you for this inspiring review!

    • Thank you! I find that writing reviews (even if they’re just freewrites in my own journal) can often help me articulate my thoughts, not just on the thing being reviewed, but my philosophies in general.

  2. This is an unusual way of displaying an exhibition. I like its informal and personal (or you can also say, subjective) style – almost feels like one is having a guided tour 🙂

    • Hi Angelina! Yes! It was like a guided tour, but without the awkwardness and boredom that I often feel when I’m on tours. 😉 I hope it’ll inspire future exhibitions to follow in its conversational, eclectic footsteps.

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