“[Gorgeous is] some combination of grit and lushness,” states a woman with ruby lips. In a video playing at the entrance of the Asian Art Museum’s exhibition Gorgeous, a collaboration with SFMOMA, a small sample of SF residents share what the word “gorgeous” means to them. One individual, a glam drag queen wearing deliciously bold daytime paint, takes this one step further and explains her idea of “filthy gorgeous”. For me, this set the bar high for the show, and encapsulated everything I hoped it would be. I instantly thirsted for an exhibition that could take the viewer beyond the often overused “beautiful” and into the flesh-prickling, gritty realm of the filthy gorgeous.
But alas, there was no dank stairwell descending into a David Lynch-esque cellar underworld. There was no blood-stained glitter, and barely any velvet edged with grime. There were, however, some notable pieces that tipped the scales of gorgeous with their combination of beautiful and bizarre, exhibitionist glamour and familiar strangeness: Marilyn Minter’s dirt-coated rhinestone-bedazzled heel, Felix Gonzalez-Torres gold spangly curtain of beads, and Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura’s plush Portrait (Futago), which is a contemporary redux of Manet’s Olympia. All in all, the contemporary pieces from the SFMOMA collection outshone, rather than enhanced, the quieter Asian Art Museum antiquities.
Where the collaboration between these two collections worked best in this show was a meditation-like room housing a wall-sized Rothko and an adjacent Buddhist mandala. The solemn darkness created an environment ripe for reflection–an aspect that worked well for considering both the Asian art pieces present and the color field painting, particularly when one considered that the Ab Ex artists were greatly influenced by Eastern and Native American cultures. The pieces in this room complemented one another well, but they also allowed space to consider the distance between them: the domination that white male Ab Ex artists had and still have over the art world compared to the continued marginalization of ancient Asian arts and art forms.
While Gorgeous in theme and content is clearly meant to appeal to a broader and younger audience, for the already-knowledgable viewer, the A-list of contemporary artists felt like Art 101, curatorially-speaking. Duchamp’s fountain and other heavy hitters primarily operated as flashy cultural collateral, rather than raised important issues for this show specifically. In fact, the fountain could be dropped into any show about contemporary art in order to say “Duchamp’s work is an important pre-cursor to the issue of [fill in the blank] in art today”. While I always enjoy seeing blue chip, all-time favorites like these in person, they did not add to this show in terms of thinking critically about what is gorgeous and why.
It was apparent that the theme of the show was too broad, and most of the works represent the bounty of a loose net cast far and wide (or rather, two collections that differ greatly from one another). It would be far too easy to replace the word “gorgeous” with the word “beautiful”, and then ask ourselves what art is beautiful. Well, a lot of it. Gorgeous also sheds historical and cultural contexts to allow an unadulterated focus on how the art confronts the viewer as gorgeous. This sounds better in concept than in execution though. Unanchored from context, visitors may feel freedom in their viewership. However, it also invites a far too cursory approach to some amazing works of art, and there is the threat of equating “gorgeous” with superficial. The exhibition even boasts that it spans 2,200 years, which makes it clear that removing historical context was more than a curatorial decision; it was a necessity.
Overall, I found the show interesting but lacking. Maybe my expectation for “gorgeous” is a little too rough around the edges. But this is San Francisco, and what I love about this city and the art that comes out of it is what stains the beautiful ever so slightly. What can I say, I like a little more filth in my gorgeous.