Having a vague concept of what gorgeous is, the Asian Art Museum partnered with the SFMOMA to present 72 artworks drawn in what appears to be a random sampling from both the collections of the Asian Art Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. With woks spanning over 2,200 years and dozens of cultures, the Asian Art Museum made “an attempt to shift the focus from historical and cultural contexts, emphasizing instead the unique ways each work announces itself or solicits a viewer’s attention.” Just because Jeff Koon’s “Bubbles” (sculpture of Michael Jackson with his pet monkey) is placed next to a Buddha, does not make ‘context’ relevant and impact our understanding and appreciation of the work. Context requires more than just proximity.
“Bubbles” is a statement to its own excess, and Koons’ particular brilliance, no matter where you set it down. “Bubbles” is the #gorgeous, but the curators, hoping that this new context makes us think of “Bubbles” in a different light, don’t succeed. Instead everything else looks old, colorless and drab. It reminds me of when lesser artists use a great movie as a source to make their art. The greatness is in the original movie, the derivative works just leech some of its power. You’re left thinking that you should just really re-watch that great movie – and ignore the art. Here, all you can think is that “Bubbles” and the many other great contemporary pieces would look so much better with some space to breath, without these beautiful artifacts that become like tchotchkes in a fussy antique store, cluttering the space.
The curators hoped that ‘left to (our) own devices, (we) might gravitate toward the strange or the familiar’ in what seems like a win – win situation. And when it comes to being ‘Gorgeous’ ‘some artworks may be beautiful to (us); others, bizarre and challenging’. Clearly they had no idea what gorgeous means. Here’s a hint – gorgeous is splendid or sumptuous in appearance, coloring, etc. Gorgeous is something that is magnificent. It is not strange, bizzare or challenging. “Whatever (gorgeous is), your reactions to the show will be unique. And that’s what interests us. And as Allison Harding, co-curator of “Gorgeous”, states, “This isn’t about what the museum thinks. This is about what you think.” Does that mean that “Gorgeous” is #muddy, #spiritless and #boring?
Because, that’s what I thought.
Mixing contemporary paintings, sculptures, photographs with art historical objects of high design or decoration (sacred or profane) is not curating. Making a meaningful point through art is. I found something a little condescending in the tone of the show, for instance the viewer was guided: “(a)cross from a Picasso, you might spot a decorated Qur’an from 16th-century Persia or an arresting photograph by Sally Mann.” Which in fact you do, because that’s what’s on display. #statingtheobvious. Hey, and you know what if you went to the #Gorgeous show at the Asian Art Museum, you might also have to walk up some stairs to get into the building, and if you are thirsty you might find yourself a drinking fountain to get a sip of water, and if you are really lucky you might find some escalators to take you up to the third floor where the truly amazing Buddhas are located. And there if you are really lucky, you’ll find yourself in the presence of truly great art, in a truly great institution. But whatever you find, you’ll not find any #gorgeous in this show, thanks to the exhibition’s misguided curatorial slackness.
It’s a pity that in the case of “Gorgeous” hosted by the Asian Art Museum there was not a greater whole created from the sum of the parts. Instead the parts competed in a mangled attempt to create an artistic dialogue around the idea of #gorgeous.
Asian Art Museum in San Francisco is located at:
200 Larkin St, San Francisco, CA 94102
“Gorgeous” exhibition ran 6/20 – 9/14, 2014
Written by POVarts West Coast Editor: Chuck Frank