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"Curious Creatures." 'Tis the season for toys, and appropriately enough the Punch Gallery presents "Curious Creatures," a multiartist exhibit of limited-edition figurines. More for display than play, the toys are prototypes of avant-garde products for sale by individuals who want to retain control over creation and distribution. Some riff cleverly on existing novelties (Friends With You's distinctly Beanie Babyesque plush toys), whereas others are unique (MARS-1's robots are like an H.R. Giger painting come to life). Through Jan. 2 at the Punch Gallery, 155 10th St. (at Howard), S.F. Admission is free; call 845-4739 or visit (Melissa Lane) Reviewed Dec. 8.

"Euan MacDonald: Natura." Euan MacDonald's latest video relates a series of vignettes set in the wilderness. Together, they suggest a camping trip gone horribly wrong: A quiet campfire reverie gives way to the frenzied hopping of one protagonist, whose foot has been set aflame; two men canoeing across a sylvan lake are suddenly pursued by a twister; and a menacing pair of headlights follows a lone driver down a deserted country road. MacDonald's pieces are always subtle, deliberately low-res, and obviously manipulated. He plays with the power of film, poking holes in our notions of truth and introducing new possibilities. At its best, his work can be a poignant haiku, spare and elegant. Unfortunately, Natura feels more like a clunky one-liner. Through Jan. 1 at the Jack Hanley Gallery, 389 Valencia (at 15th Street), S.F. Admission is free; call 522-1623 or visit (Adrienne Gagnon) Reviewed Dec. 22.

"Furniture as Art." At home we like to be surrounded by comfort. But this show envisions a different kind of household, one filled with spikes and angles and strange objects that don't invite you to put your feet up and chill out. Though fascinating to look at, many of the pieces are entirely nonfunctional. Some are even a bit threatening. Danielle Giudici's Bed With Nipples and Cradle, for example, are creepily compelling. Whereas typical baby furniture is padded and rounded, Giudici's bed and cradle are stark steel, their resting places spiked with plaster or lead baby-bottle nipples. Not all of the pieces are as menacing, though. Megan DeArmond's comfortingly solid dresser, Armoir, displays an Alice in Wonderlandtype whimsy, with sturdy steel legs that descend into lifelike feet clad in cast-iron shoes. But when you open the dresser's drawers and cabinet, you find metal sculptures of skeletons, body parts, and a small, helpless figure trapped inside. Just the thing for a cozy, serene bedroom. Through Dec. 22 at SFMOMA's Artists Gallery, Fort Mason, Building A, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Admission is free; call 441-4777 or visit (Joyce Slaton) Reviewed Nov. 3.

"Liquid." Vincent van Gogh's Starry Night is one of the most recognizable images in the world; even those who know nothing about art associate it with that guy who chopped his ear off. But seeing it in person makes all the difference. Prints and copies don't reveal the maniacal thickness with which the artist applied his paint, leaving swirls and whorls that dramatically reveal both his passion and his instability. Observed in a gallery setting, Sharon Ben-Tal's work has a similar effect. When photographed, her mixed-media paintings appear to be simple geometric designs on a monochromatic background, but upon close inspection they reveal 80 to 100 layers of paint (often mixed with graphite or ground glass) applied by the artist to each panel. Surfaces glimmer with unfathomable depth and an infinite variety of shades; the images are so compelling that the foreground squiggles -- presumably the works' subjects -- fade in importance against the gorgeous, bottomless backgrounds. This exhibit of Ben-Tal's paintings continues through Dec. 23 at the Heather Marx Gallery, 77 Geary (at Grant), Second Floor, S.F. Admission is free; call 627-9111 or visit (Joyce Slaton) Reviewed Dec. 15.

"Meat Show." Though this exhibition is meant to celebrate the potent symbol of meat, local artist Kara Maria has assembled a group of works that'll make even carnivores think twice. Noah Lang's charred black hot dogs -- stacked in buns on a plate and stuck into Styrofoam spheres to create "meat stars" -- are as goofy as they are grody. Laura Splan's digital photographs, which superimpose the heads of mangled cats over eviscerated chicken carcasses, are gross for no good reason. There are some pleasant surprises, though. Jeanne Friscia contributes a series of prints in which cross sections of meat, poultry, and fish are kaleidoscoped into lovely wallpaper patterns, and Laura DuFort's giant, glossy, red diptych, Transfusion, glows with life. Through Jan. 15 at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, 401 Van Ness (at McAllister), S.F. Admission is free; call 554-6080 or visit (Adrienne Gagnon) Reviewed Dec. 22.

"Mina Mina Country." Though modern Americans assign scant importance to the substance of their dreams, numerous cultures consider the movies our minds create while we sleep to be a method of traveling in the spirit world to commune with the specters found there. Among Australian Aborigines, for example, dreams represent connections between the dreamer and the land he inhabits as well as the ancestors who passed before; this sacred and mystical link forms an important topic in Aboriginal art. All this is a bit hard to discern just by looking at Dorothy Napangardi's deceptively simple works, which use dotted lines and geometric patterns to represent visions of Mina Mina, her home in the Northern Territory of Australia -- but with a little background, we grow to appreciate her colorful prints for the evocative journal entries they are. This show of Napangardi's images continues through Dec. 31 at the Crown Point Press Gallery, 20 Hawthorne (at Folsom), S.F. Admission is free; call 974-6273 or visit (Joyce Slaton) Reviewed Dec. 15.

"Misfit Toys." She looks at you through a haze of arrogance and cry-for-help eye makeup that makes you think of Courtney Love, but her cottony hair and huggable body are jarringly cute. You want to hold her even though you know she'd just pick your pockets. She is Jenny Bird Alcantara's Heroin Doll, one of the brigade of questionable characters in "Misfit Toys," someone's fantastically twisted idea of a holiday art show. Alcantara's fucked-up frill joins other pieces that shouldn't come near children: Kal Spelletich's art, for example, tends to feature randomly slashing blades, fast-moving hammers, and other unsafe mechanical contraptions, and it'll be interesting to see his idea of a plaything. Additional contributors include steel-and-glass queen Bella Hagen, trash-revival master Al Honig, and painter/bartender Jack Yaghubian. Through Jan. 8 at Varnish, 77 Natoma (at Second Street), S.F. Admission is free; call 222-6131 or visit (Hiya Swanhuyser) Reviewed Dec. 8.


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