Thursday, May 5, 2011

Is this the best place to see Modern Art in San Francisco?

I try to take advantage of all the opportunities the Bay Area has to see art. I believe as an artist it is always important to look at a lot of art. It’s not always about a matter of looking for inspiration (though it happens) — you just need to get out there and look.

Over the last 20 years nearly half of the really good, interesting and cutting edge, contemporary art that I have seen in the Bay Area was seen at one museum. It may surprise some for me to report that museum is the Asian Art Museum. I have seen plenty of good work at other museums and galleries, but the Asian has had more than it’s share. My general rule is, if it is a modern art show at the Asian, don’t miss it.

Yesterday I saw the big, hyped up Bali show. It’s quite good and there are some fun things (I want a fighting cricket cage and some chicken shadow puppets). The show did inspire my piece for the 2011 Project as well. Why though they feel the need to charge an extra $5 for this show, I don’t know. This is a bad trend in museums where they charge extra for every special show. The Asian is having trouble getting people in the door, and charging more is probably not the best way to improve attendance. Also, in spite of great contemporary shows, the Asian Art Museum has never played to that strength.

Currently you can wander upstairs and come upon a very strong, little show called Here/Not Here: Buddha Presence in Eight Recent Works. Information about the show is buried on their own website. You can go into the next room and realize that the traditional painting on silk is actually a pattern created with a blowtorch on steel mesh (the work is amazing).

There have been many modern shows there that I wish could have become permanent. In 2005 Sui Jianguo’s red dinosaur in a cage quite literally was a traffic stopper out in front on Larkin Street. At the same time there was his sleeping Mao installation inside. There Mao was surrounded by hundreds of little dinosaurs all configured into a map of Asia. A few years later this piece turned up at that “other” museum on Third Street. I am still shocked by how dusty it was.

The 2004 exhibition of the Thai artist Montien Boonma remains one of the best modern art shows of all time in San Francisco. Getting lost in the House of Hope is a moment that will stay with me. It was an installation of strands of fragrant, prayer beads that visitors could wander into. And the post-industrial Buddha heads you could stand under while light dappled in were marvelous. They really should have kept the young lead singer of the punk band The Hammered Grunts on the payroll to pose under the art. He looked like part of the installation in all his pierced, studded glory.

At times it seems the Asian Art Museum just doesn’t understand how good it does Modern Art — but I’ll keep visiting in spite of that.

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