Westerners have traditionally considered Japanese geisha to be high-toned whores, perhaps because we lack any cultural context for the practice. Geisha painted their faces and dressed for the pleasure of men, did they not? Surely their favors were for sale. But as the remarkable new Asian Art Museum exhibition "Geisha: Behind the Painted Smile" proves, our brash presumptions cause us to overlook a milieu in which power and beauty are communicated through subtle symbolism.
The approximately 130 artifacts in the show -- which range from drawings and photographs to garments and musical instruments -- are almost all pleasing to the eye. Who wouldn't admire lavishly embroidered kimonos and brilliant Japanese woodblock prints? But more intriguing, the historical ephemera illustrate the reverence for aesthetics that is the center point of the geisha's existence. To our American eyes, the strolling geisha pictured on painted scrolls look exotically similar. But to those steeped in the culture, the differences that separate them -- the ornaments they wear in their hair, the design and drape of their robes, even the way they hold their bodies -- serve to advertise their status and proclivities as plainly as a billboard.
The exhibit's works, presented in a chronological "narrative" that outlines the lives of geisha from the 18th century to the present, grant outsiders a rare guided peek at a mysterious world. The gala opening on June 23 is pricey -- $350 and up -- but the curious can catch numerous special tours and programs centering around the show starting today (and continuing through Sept. 26) at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin (at McAllister), S.F. Exhibit admission is free-$10, and programs are free-$15; call 581-3500 or visit www.asianart.org.
-- Joyce Slaton
Paris in June
The Paris Review has been at the top of the literary magazine heap since 1953. Ever wonder what the context was for Hemingway's deathless quotation, "The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector?" Well, now you know. The publication's latest anthology is The Paris Review Book for Planes, Trains, Elevators, and Waiting Rooms, a volume packed with stuff to keep you stimulated as you wait in line at the DMV. Contributing authors Denis Johnson, Junot Díaz, and Paul Hoover read starting at 7 p.m. at the Park Branch Library, 1833 Page (at Cole), S.F. Admission is free; call 863-8688 or visit www.booksmith.com.
-- Hiya Swanhuyser
A friend of mine will shun the norm at this year's Burning Man festival by wearing nothing but vintage Betsey Johnson and Chanel designs. Since not everyone has her monstrous trust-fund ability to wear pricey threads in a dirty desert, the next best thing is "Get Ready for Burning Man," a fiesta of crafting and costumes. They supply the sewing machines and the materials (stuff that's fun to touch when you're in an altered state); you supply the ideas and the originality. The fashion-ing starts at 11 a.m. both days at Cell Space, 2050 Bryant (at 18th Street), S.F. Admission is $10-20 per day; call 648-7562 or visit www.cellspace.org.
-- Brock Keeling
That's a First
For years the cool kids of L.A. have smugly counted two Giant Robot stores within their environs while we've had none. The combination retail outlets/art galleries, offshoots of the decade-old Asian youth culture zine Giant Robot, are a sweet source of T-shirts and comics, but even better are the innovative exhibits. And now that local outpost GRSF has opened its doors in the Haight, you can see for yourself. "Folk Ways," a group show featuring work from 11 artists who present modern tweaks on traditional Asian art styles and folk heroes, opens today with a reception at 6:30 p.m. (and continues through Aug. 16) at GRSF, 622 Shrader (at Haight), S.F. Admission is free; call 876-4773 or visit www.giantrobot.com.
-- Joyce Slaton