The human form is noticeably absent from the Legion of Honor’s exhibit Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy. Underneath Pei’s collection of embroidered gowns, smooth-skinned mannequins reveal patches of matte gold or silver skin.
Described by the exhibition curator as “China’s premier couturier,” Pei is renowned in pop culture and Vogue-ish circles as the designer of Rihanna’s yellow 2015 Met Gala gown. Rihanna did more than model that mile-long, fur-trimmed train. She brought it to life. That element of human suppleness, of the body’s hard angles and of its voluptuous softness, is missing from Couture Fantasy.
During a Guo Pei fashion show, the models walk perilously down the gangplank. They’re elegantly encumbered by the weight of metallic threads, billions of beads, flurries of feathers, and multidimensional outcroppings of fabric. Pei pairs her gowns with shoes that are constructed in the same way that Alexander McQueen’s armadillo heels are. They’re tall and futuristic, fit for Lady Gaga, slow-motion double takes, and the unlimited potential of fracturing an ankle.
Posed in the museum, the dresses’ odd, cascading geometries appear stiff and unforgiving. But in videos of a Pei catwalk, they clarify how the formality of such garments interact with flesh and blood. Pei’s work demands exquisite posture from the models. They can’t slouch or hurry through their workday. You can’t imagine anyone chewing gum in them, let alone running to the loo.
This opulent fantasia is not out of line with every other haute couture fashion designer—and the inventive extravagance of a drag queen. One dress from Pei’s “L’Architecture” collection (Fall/Winter 2018-2019) isn’t just an homage to a cathedral. The bell shape of the skirt, with an indented entryway, mimics the front façade of an actual cathedral. Then Pei draws out the connection by embroidering a scene on the skirt with crosses floating above a Gothic church. With its revealing bustier and the placement of a suggestive illustration—the body is a pathway to heaven. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence could adapt this gown in any number of startling ways.
In an excerpt from an introductory film at the exhibit, Pei recounts her start as a designer. She was one of the first generation of Chinese students to study fashion there after the Cultural Revolution. There’s a brief clip featuring one of her initial outfits, a sober gray skirt and blazer combination. That dutiful but drab designer disappeared years later when she decided to embrace the tradition and history of Chinese craftsmanship. Pei’s workshop now employs several hundred people, among them, artisanal furniture makers and expert tailors.
Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy positions each gown like the assemblages made by the artist Joseph Cornell. One black dress from the “L’Architecture” collection contains a shadow box with the image of an idyllic forest glen. The shoes alone from the “Garden of Soul” collection (2015) look like aquariums burgeoning with spring flowers. You’re compelled to go in for a close-up view to consider the imaginative life of Guo Pei and the many industrious hands that sewed the hours and days away to arrive at each dazzling design.
The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Discounts available for youth, students and seniors.
— Jeffrey Edalatpour
Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave.
April 16-September 5 | $30
Skylight Gallery @ SFPL Main Library, 100 Larkin St.
Through April 17 | Free
The San Francisco Public Library’s main branch showcases activist posters by the San Francisco Poster Syndicate, a local screen printing group born out of the student debt crisis that prints free posters “live” at political demonstrations, exhibitions and on the street to draw attention to social and economic inequalities. Whether they turn up at protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Trump administration or ICE detention camps, their graphics have fought for homeless rights, electoral and union campaigns as well as immigration, racial and climate justice. (CJC)
Marine’s Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter St.
Through April 24, Various Times | $10-$35
Director L. Peter Callendar and the African American Shakespeare Company reimagine The Bard’s tale of a self-indulgent king’s fall from grace as a “memory play”—with a new modern verse translation by Japanese American playwright Naomi Iizuka and commedia dell’arte masks. “In this production, we begin with the end, and journey through the mind of a narcissistic king who seeks redemption. We see life and behavior as he remembers,” writes Callendar in his director’s note. “The use of theatrical comedia masks illustrates how memory can be warped when we ‘call back yesterday, [and] bid time return,’ but time is a fickle friend, and the mirror in which we see ourselves has its own way of reflecting truth.” (CJC)
Bayview Opera House, Bayview District
Thursday, April 13, 6 p.m. | Free
San Francisco cultural districts SoMA Pilipinas and the African American Art & Cultural District host this exhibit, featuring photos from renowned Filipino photographer Ricardo Ocreto Alvarado. Attendees will explore the history of San Francisco’s Filipino community and its connection to the Bayview District. There will also be special guest speakers and live music. (MM)
Season 1 Finale, April 15
One of the more common, and mean-spirited, critiques flung at our current Commander-in-Chief is that the guy simply can’t talk. That’s not true. The truth is, Joe Biden’s public speaking abilities are actually seriously impressive when you consider that he’s lived with a stutter his entire life. In recent years, more people are speaking up and raising awareness about this condition—unkindly played as a gag in pop culture for generations—with the aim of destigmatizing stuttering and educating the public about what it is and how to support and better understand those who have a stutter. Finishing their sentences? Not helpful. Telling them to take their time? That’s just calling attention to something of which they are painfully aware. This past year, two San Francisco-based podcasters, Maya Chupkov and Cynthia Chin, produced “Proud Stutter,” a podcast aimed at changing the narrative around stuttering. The final episode of the first season drops this Friday, and you can listen to the entire season at the Proud Stutter website. (NV)
41 Ross Alley, Chinatown
Friday, April 15, 5 p.m. | Free
In Korean, “sarang” means love and “bang” means room. Together, the two words, or “sarangbang,” refer to a study and leisurely space for men to unwind in traditional Korean houses. As part of her residency at Chinatown’s 41 Ross gallery, visual artist and anthropologist Heesoo Kwon (born in Korea and now based in the Bay) reclaims this masculine relaxation space for feminism, queer fluidity and communal activities—renaming it the “Room of Love.” Friday’s opening ceremony includes a “Shrimp Car March” featuring an appearance by artist Andrew Sungtaek Ingersoll and Oliver Hawk Holden’s crustacean-inspired SFMOMA Soapbox Derby ride, rhythmic dances by the Portsmouth Square Dance Club, a “communal 3D scanning” by Kwon, and a performance by Hwa Records. (CJC)
Polk Street between California and Broadway
Saturday and Sunday, April 15-16 | Free
For two days, Polk Street transforms into a mini Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. Local artists from across the Bay Area liven up local bars with an eclectic array of bluegrass, folk, country, gypsy jazz and even Balkan music on Friday and Saturday nights. Famed sibling duo The Rowan Brothers, folk trio Rainbow Girls and bluegrass wunderkinds Cryin Uncle, among others, take to the Bandwagon Stage Saturday afternoon at various times.
Dolores Park, 19th & Dolores
Sunday, April 17, 10 a.m. | Free
After a two-year hiatus, The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a worldwide activist and artistic order of LGBTQ+ “nuns” dedicated to spreading “universal joy” and expelling “stigmatic guilt,” resurrect their annual Easter Sunday celebration. Host Peaches Christ emcees an eclectic variety show of drag performances, live entertainment and contests. Attendees are encouraged to wear clever and creative headware for the Easter Bonnet contest or show up in their comeliest virgin Mary get-up for the Foxy Mary competition. The highly anticipated Hunky Jesus contest to crown the sexiest savior happens at 3 p.m. But there are plenty of kid-friendly activities, too, including an Easter Egg hunt and children’s storytime between 10 a.m. and noon.
Leading up to Sunday, the Sisters will also celebrate the renaming of Alert Alley (off Dolores between 15th and 16th streets) to “Sister Vish-Knew Way” on Saturday at 4 p.m. with a procession through several spots integral to the order’s early years and an official street christening. The new street name honors the birth of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence on Easter weekend 43 years ago when the order’s co-founder, Sister Vish-Knew (aka LGBTQ+ activist Kenneth Bunch), and two friends put on nun’s habits and hit the streets just a block away from the alley. Since 1979, the Sisters have been staunch advocates and fundraisers for queer and transgender rights, LGBTQ+ youth and HIV/AIDS advocacy. The party is free but donations are encouraged. (CJC)
20th and Vermont , Potrero District
Sunday, April 17- 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm | FREE
Many people believe Lombard to be San Francisco's "crookedest" street, but locals know better! That distinction belongs to Vermont Street in the Potrero District, and this weekend it will host the return of BYOB—"Bring Your Own Big Wheel." If you’re bummed about missing last week's epic Soapbox Derby at McLaren Park, or if you were there and are already pining for more, this event is for you, and the kids, if you have them. Expect dozens of homemade plastic Big Wheels to wind their way down our city’s true crookedest street. (MM)