"Jack London and the Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906." The centennial of the 1906 earthquake was on April 18, and myriad commemorations deluged us with pictures of buckled streets, ruined buildings, and survivors trundling their things in wheelbarrows. This show is no exception, but as curated by Philip L. Fradkin for the California Historical Society, it's a definitive, surprising look at what happened. Peering through the lens of a well-known author offers a familiarity other exhibitions don't have, and London's wife's diary, contemporary paper ephemera, and scenes from around Northern California are unique to this show: Fort Bragg demolished, Santa Rosa as piles of bricks, and flattened shacks in Willits are images you're unlikely to see elsewhere. And what can we learn from all this at least those of us who don't wish to simply gawk like terror tourists? Keep your eyes open and you'll discover interesting bits of history. For example, the Ocean Shore Track rail line was buried under a particularly dramatic landslide, but who even knew there was an Ocean Shore Track? Through June 10 at the California Historical Society, 678 Mission (at Third Street), S.F. Admission is free-$3; call 357-1848 or visit www.californiahistoricalsociety.org. (Hiya Swanhuyser) Reviewed March 22.
"LP." Walter Kitundu's sculptures/musical instruments fall roughly into two categories: objects that combine turntables with traditional string instruments from around the world (harps, kotos, and the guitarlike West African kora), and record players powered by wind, fire, earthquakes, and other natural forces. While the former combine recorded sounds with live performance (Kitundu gives a concert on June 11), the latter are more conceptual than musical. Balloon Powered Turntable is a quirky, Rube Goldbergian contraption tethering a turntable and a network of gears to a gaggle of weather balloons. Wind Powered Turntable is mounted on the surface of a coffee table and powered from below by a windmill made out of soup ladles. Hot air from an array of candles fuels Fire Powered Turntable. These lower-than-low-tech devices are reminiscent of the inventive, improvisational designs that approximate the technology of the industrialized world in the developing one. Except that, in this case, the technology they mimic is already outmoded (albeit subculturally cool). Kitundu not only recontextualizes the turntable as a musical instrument in its own right (any DJ can vouch for that), but reminds us that unlike digital media, LPs still have physical grooves that turn movement whether created by electricity, wind, or fire into sound. Through June 17 at the Luggage Store Gallery, 1007 Market (at Sixth St.), S.F. Admission is free; call 255-5971 or visit www.luggagestoregallery.org. (Sharon Mizota) Reviewed May 31.
"Shomei Tomatsu: Skin of the Nation." This first U.S. retrospective of the Japanese photographer's oeuvre cuts a wide swath through the modern history of Japan. Captured with candor and a gentle intelligence, Tomatsu's subjects encompass the everyday effects of WWII devastation, American military occupation, and the ensuing westernization of Japan. His eye for telling detail and critical nuance gives his works an immediacy and freshness that balances the specific humanity of his subjects with stories of national and global proportions. For example, his pictures of atomic bomb survivors are restrained and demure, while his images of the objects that survived the blast speak volumes. The vessel in Bottle Melted and Deformed by Atomic Bomb Heat, Radiation, and Fire, Nagasaki is twisted and bloated like a deformed limb or a mutant fetus. It's a graphic stand-in for the devastated flesh and psyches of the bombs' human survivors, whose scars Tomatsu was too respectful to probe fully with the camera. This sensitivity also shows up in his ambivalent portraits of Americans during the occupation. Part of a series titled "Chewing Gum and Chocolate" (after the treats that U.S. soldiers handed out to Japanese children), some images are overtly critical two young black men harassing a Japanese woman, the sole of a white soldier's boot looming above the camera but others capture a tentative air of unease that betrays Tomatsu's sympathy for even the most antipathetic subjects. Through Aug. 16 at SFMOMA, 151 Third St. (between Mission and Howard), S.F. Admission is free-$12.50; call 357-4000 or visit www.sfmoma.org. (Sharon Mizota) Reviewed May 31.
"The Three Gorges Project: Paintings by Liu Xiaodong." To make way for China's Three Gorges Dam, thousands of villages will be submerged and more than a million people displaced along the Yangzi River. Liu's massive paintings of the region are suitably panoramic, but their balance of carefully observed detail and symbolic elements reveals not just the vast scope of the project, but also its darker human toll. In Displaced Population, six tired-looking men stand above the valley where the dam is being built holding a long metal rod on their shoulders. Composed of four panels, the image is slightly misaligned at each seam so that the rod shifts upward from left to right. Presaging the rising level of the water, it also charts a quietly building emotional tension. In the background, we see the transition in more literal terms: The gray ruins of a demolished city give way to a riverbed dotted with bright blue construction tents. Newly Displaced Population tracks a generation gap, juxtaposing wayward little boys with toy guns, disaffected teenagers, and lonely middle-aged men. Tumbling improbably through the dull sky above them is a duck that looks as if it's just been shot, a crystallization of latent violence. Throughout, Liu's loose, casual brushwork makes the works feel like snapshots of a transitional moment, capturing the evanescence of an old way of life and the brutish birth of a new one. Through July 16 at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin (at McAllister), S.F. Admission is free-$10; call 581-3500 or visit www.asianart.org. (Sharon Mizota) Reviewed April 26.