I confess I hadn’t expected to like the Asian Art Museum’s new GORGEOUS exhibition done in collaboration with the SFMoMA. The SFMoMA is undergoing some massive renovations and expansion; as a result they have been sending their collection out to various museums and locations so that it can still be enjoyed while the museum is closed. While it’s a great concept I haven’t been all that impressed with the offerings I’ve attended so far (probably due to my lack of knowledge of modern and contemporary art), so I attended GORGEOUS with trepidation.
I absolutely loved it. The exhibition has a very ambitious purpose: challenging visitors to confront and assess their concepts of what is “gorgeous.” They do this through 72 pieces, from paintings and sculptures, to installation art, photographs, furniture, and clothing — even an iPhone display model. Broken up across four galleries and the main lobby, the objects span 2,200 years and several cultures. The success of this exhibition was as much in the pieces chosen as the juxtaposition of those pieces. On one wall in the first gallery there was a small sketch by Tom of Finland, next to an enormous print of Yasumasa Morimura’s Portrait (Futago), which was in turn next to Sally Mann’s controversial portraits of her children. Having long loved Morimura’s work — and partially due to the sheer size of the piece — I confess his piece was the first I gravitated towards, before noticing the other two.
These were not a “natural” combination of pieces to my mind, but it worked extremely well, creating a conversation about sexuality and beauty. It explored our perceptions of sexual identity — that of ourselves and others — and the development of sexuality, as indicated in Sally Mann’s children imitating the glamorous poses they had seen in adults or magazines and advertisements without understanding their meaning. Concepts I would not have considered together, but which are all interconnected since they connect to not only how we perceive ourselves but hope to be perceived by others.
During the talk I attended the same evening, which I reviewed for Fashion Historia, it was the Tom of Finland piece that generated the most discussion among the attendees. Were these men posing for each other or for a third observer? Were they establishing a power dynamic? If so, with whom? That the exhibition (and the amazing speaker) enticed complete strangers to offer their opinions about the pieces, and conceptions of beauty and sexuality in a public setting shows how provocative and well done this exhibition was.
The comparisons did not have to be side by side to create such a conversation. The scroll painting triptych of Three Types of Beauties in Edo were in a completely different part of the gallery from an elaborate Noh theatre robe, and yet the contradiction of the movement in the worn garments depicted as opposed to the static nature of the displayed robe not only emphasized the need for a body to give clothing life, but also that clothes can have different types of beauty depending on whether they are displayed or worn. And that neither is right or wrong or better than the other.
Multiple landscapes on screens and scrolls from China and Japan made for an intriguing comparison mentally when I moved into the final gallery to see an enormous Rothko painting, all of which were still in mind when looking at Jess’s Narkissos, a collaged drawing that explored homosexual masculine desire, and yet was composed as a sort of surrealist landscape with figures. Then there were the similarities and differences between Jeff Koons’s Michael Jackson and Bubbles ceramic statue (it looked rather a lot like an overgrown porcelain figurine of the sort my grandmother has) and Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. They made for an intriguing parallel despite being in separate rooms. Both were made of porcelain, one was clearly decorative while the other was the creation of art out of the mundane, but they were each museum objects and considered “gorgeous” by someone, and they both had a note of irony in them.
The different concepts of beauty and what can be “gorgeous” were explored not only across cultures in the sense of Eastern versus Western, but also through the contradictions found in the struggles between mainstream and subcultures: explorations of homosexual and heterosexual desire, of photographic or traditional portraiture with cubism and surrealism, and (rather hilariously) the foibles of the ultrarich versus the rest of us through Tobias Wong’s and Ju$t Another Rich Kid’s 2005 Coke Spoon 02 made entirely of gold and mimicking the old McDonald’s coffee spoons. Concepts of what is not only beautiful but what can be appropriately depicted within a culture were equally explored — best demonstrated by a beautiful Iranian Qur’an from 1550 decorated with gold and a blue ink made of lapis lazuli.
The contradictions were sometimes found within the same piece. A piece by Andy Warhol of Jacqueline Bouvier-Kennedy (later Onassis) on the day of her first husband’s funeral was very vulnerable and moving — almost disturbing — despite being a simple black and white image doubled. This woman who represented elegance and chic, looking so quietly devastated and “ordinary,” if you will, was a comparison in and of itself that brought home how unkind it is of society to put people on pedestals of beauty. The same feeling could be found in Marilyn Minter’s Strut, which seemed to emphasize the struggle that exists behind being “glamorous” through the simple composition of a slightly dirty, seemingly rain-spattered foot in a Christian Dior high heel.
Despite not being the final gallery, for me the exhibition ended with Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Golden), an enormous golden beaded curtain that all patrons walked through to exit the gallery and carry on with the exhibition. From a distance, and walking through it, it had echoes for me of Alexander McQueen’s Untitled Spring/Summer 1998 runway show, which McQueen had wanted to title “The Golden Shower.” Though it would be more accurate to say the McQueen show echoed Gonzalez-Torres’s work, since the artwork pre-dates the collection by three years. The piece was created in mourning for Gonzalez-Torres’s partner, Ross Laycock, who had died of AIDS shortly before the artist himself would succumb to the disease. During the talk people offered their perceptions of the piece, a veil, a membrane, a rebirth. Everyone’s experience was different, and yet I agreed with every assessment.
The exhibition was — as is the catalogue — broken up into general themes, such as “Seduction” and “Fantasy” and “Imperfection,” but I largely ignored these and did as the curators wanted and went in the order that the pieces attracted me. In turns disturbing and enlightening, I found myself approaching each new piece ready to accept its gorgeousness as already established because someone somewhere already thought it was; the challenge was in leaving my own attitudes behind to understand why something I wouldn’t have liked initially might appeal to someone else. The exhibition made me think about difficult, sometimes uncomfortable, subjects such as how we perceive — or stereotype — others, and what really is “beautiful.”
The true result of this exhibition was best summed up by the first paragraph of the final piece of wall text: “The gorgeous is in the eye of the beholder. But for some artworks, the full extent of gorgeousness is not immediately seen — it is something one experiences through reflection over time.” I would extend that thesis to include people as well. This exhibition reminds us to take the time to look deeper.
As always, please share your thoughts about the exhibition or any of the pieces mentioned in the comments below. If you know of any events or exhibitions that you would like to share with Worn Through, feel free to email the details to me, or leave them in the comments.