The Asian Art Museum’s current exhibition has new stuff, and it’s quite a contrast to staid ancient scrolls and statues often shown at the institution. On view through Oct. 11, “First Look: Collecting Contemporary at the Asian” is a lively, refreshing gathering of nearly 60 pieces the museum has acquired in the past 15 years.
Arranged in three main galleries by somewhat broad themes, the modern works – by artists from Cambodia, China, India, Korea, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and the U.S. — include photography, video, installations, ink paintings, baskets and drawings. Some are provocative, some are beautiful, and some are both.
The show exemplifies the museum’s ongoing commitment to expanding its horizons, according to director Jay Xu, who says, “Contemporary art is an integral part of the museum’s artistic vision and brand: awaken the past and inspire the next.”
Pieces loosely dealing with nature, landscape and material comprise the exhibition’s first gallery. Zhu Jinshi’s 2011 large, bold abstract oil “The Third Time Going to the Yellow Mountain” has thick, broad, sensuous strokes that may – or may not – suggest the land feature in the painting’s title.
Perhaps even more evocative is photography team RongRong and inri’s “Untitled, No. 25,” a mind-bending self-portrait of the Chinese husband-and-Japanese wife and their braided, intertwined hair.
“Innovations in Ink” make up the second gallery, which offers more bold abstracts, such as C.C. Wang’s 1998 “Brush Symphony” and even moving pictures: Xu Bing’s 2012 “The Character of Characters” is an animated video telling a tale with 10,000 hand-drawn images.
History and culture are themes linking the works in the third main gallery. Ahmed Mater’s eye-catching “Illumination Waqf” from 2013 is a diptych in the shape of an Islamic manuscript, with decorated borders surrounding X-rays of torsos and heads of two people facing each other, seemingly conversing, and perhaps making a statement comparing a body that is illuminated via technology, and a soul that is enlightened, via faith.
Taking up an entire wall is Liu Xiaodong’s “River” (2005–2006), a 30-foot painted scroll with 92 human figures that have been seen in other works the artist has created previously in his career.
On a more architectural note are cool, somewhat surrealistic sculptures, including Yako Hodo’s extraordinary 1988 bamboo piece, “My UFO (Watashi no UFO).”
Although “First Look” indeed looks quite different from many displays the Asian Art Museum has mounted, guest curator Allison Harding says the show “embodies how tradition can inspire new works in the present and continue to impact contemporary life.”
IF YOU GO
First Look: Collecting Contemporary at the Asian
Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, except until 9 p.m. Thursdays; closes Oct. 11
Admission: $10 to $15
Contact: (415) 581-3500, www.asianart.org