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'Gorgeous' at the Asian Art Museum

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SFMOMA is closed for renovation but continues to be present in the Bay Area's art world. Last week, they, in collaboration with the Asian Art Museum opened "Gorgeous," the museum equivalent of a summer movie. "Gorgeous" works like an arranged marriage, which is to say, sort of, kind of and not at all.

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The show pairs vulgar, crass and relentlessly commercial modern art with the elegant, spiritual and timelessly beautiful art of Asia. The show's principal curators - Forrest McGill and Alison Harding of the Asian must have raided the Oxford English Dictionary to fish out every synonym, antonym or association that "gorgeous" would evoke.

Harding adds, "The gorgeous is more about the outliers, the abject, the grotesque and the unbelievably restrained. This work gets at an exquisite tension between attraction and repulsion." They came up with a free form poem of titles like Danger, Pose, Seduction, Dress Up, Fantasy, and Beyond Imperfection.

The wall text avoids "art speak" to focus on the curator's personal reactions. The museum is more interested in the visitors' response - and few bother to read the wall text anyway. The point of the show is to engage the visitor in an emotional way; too bad the engagement didn't include a bit more education.

The Asian looks like it put some thought into their choices; unfortunately many of SFMOMA's choices resemble the rejects that end up in the junk pile. It wasn't all bad; some of the East/West combos were thought provoking. But to put up Currin's quasi-porn portrait of a Barbie doll with her fixed smile, glazed eyes and large breasts, the coke spoon and Koons's kitschy sculpture of "Michael Jackson with Bubbles" with only a cursory write up of what really is involved in those pieces is dishonest.

Koons, the poster boy du jour, is a particularly egregious choice due to his ability to turn popular figures into quasi-religious icons through a masterly manipulation of the art market. I suppose that SFMOMA has to get its money's worth out of the Jeff Koons's pieces but I felt that to put them up - as if there are no serious issues involved - was unethical. Let's just look at Koons's white Michael Jackson, all the glittering gold paint and ignore not only the fact that Koons didn't make the piece but what it says about racism in American and the commodification of American art.

A gold coke spoon is beautiful? Tell that to the lives that drug use has ruined. In their search to be trendy and cover the category of Repulsive, SFMOMA and the artist crossed the line into offensive. The choice of an Apple iPhone was just lame.

There is a room full of 16th and 17th century Japanese screens that is to die for - and in the middle they put a heap of dusty, broken bricks by somebody whose name I didn't bother to get. Some pieces startle with their creative juxtaposition; the Mondrian paired with the woven head cloth from the Philippines was an inspired combo and the Buddhist deity Simhavaktra Dakini in front of the Torres' glittering curtain was simply "gorgeous."

Other pieces reach but just don't make it. Yasumasa Morimura mimics Edouard Manet's masterpiece "Olympia" (1863), obviously thinking he's being sexually provocative. He wishes. The piece just comes across as a vulgar piece of kitsch. Ditto for Mapplethorpe whose photos of men with over sized penises have been shown to the point of tedium. This is California. We don’t care.

If the point is to challenge our perception of what's beautiful, the show is a success. But then, our ancestors' proverb that "all that glitters is not gold" should give a clue that knowing the difference between superficial glitz and real beauty is so old it's probably imprinted on our DNA.

If the point is to delight and enlighten, the show is a mixed bag. Many modern pieces come across as meaningless junk, made for the art market of the moment, especially when paired with the timelessly beautiful and spiritual works from the Asian's collection.

But all is forgiven when the visitor walks into the last gallery and sees Rothko's "No. 14" (1960), a red field of paint against dark blue, shimmering round the edges. and guarded by a Buddhist deity. In this setting, Rothko’s statement that “We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth," rings true.

Gorgeous: Paintings, sculpture, textiles, furniture, graphic arts and video. Through Sept. 14. Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., S.F. (415)

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