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"Gorgeous" Exhibit Complicates Straightforward Notions of Beauty

Jessie at 5, 1987 by Sally Mann, Collection SFMoMA, Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery

If this image by Sally Mann—a portrait of her five-year-old daughter—strikes you as more provocative than a kindergartener’s photo should be, you’re not alone. Jessie at 5, 1987 “complicates straightforward notions of beauty,” says Allison Harding, curator of the SFMoMA-Asian Art Museum exhibit, “Gorgeous,” opening this month.

“The power lies in its ability to confound boundaries of childhood, femininity, and sexuality.” Translation: Don’t be alarmed if you find the works on view simultaneously compelling and off-putting. Harding admits that many of these pieces are “double-edged swords,” conveying a tension between surface beauty and latent danger. A gritty 2005 image, Strut, from photographer Marilyn Minter, depicting a begrimed foot slipped inside a bejeweled Dior stiletto, defies expectations of glamour. The complexities deepen when much older pieces from the Asian Art Museum are juxtaposed against modern art: Jessie at 5, 1987, for instance, is shown alongside another example of self-presentation—ancient Japanese scrolls that depict “types” of beauty. “The artworks in ‘Gorgeous’ require you to stand before them and feel their tensions,” says Harding. “Or, to borrow from Marilyn Minter, ‘suck in their lusciousness.’”

June 20–Sept. 14; Asian Art Museum (Civic Center).