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Our critics weigh in on local exhibits

"Big Deal & Blow Up," "Extraordinary Exhibitions: Broadsides From the Collection of Ricky Jay," and "Leon Borensztein and His Friends: A Look at Creative Growth Artists and Their Work." Three unconnected shows and a newly commissioned interactive sculpture explore a wide range of expressions and media. Visually, the super-size "Big Deal," with large-scale works from a quintet of artists, dwarfs viewers with its sheer mass. And while we perked up our ears at the mere mention of Johnston Foster's "coterie of sculptural critters and home furnishings" and photographs of Jim Denevan's crop circle-like sand drawings done on Northern California beaches, what we're really dying to see is Michael Arcega's Spanish galleon made entirely from manila folders, El Conquistadork, which actually embarked on a short voyage (with the artist onboard) across Tomales Bay. In addition to these monster-size works, the extraordinary playbill collection of sideshow scholar Ricky Jay is on view. Among the highlights are colorful depictions of typical entertainers from the time, such as a cannon ball juggler, a flea circus, and a female magician. The party continues with Leon Borensztein's photographic portraits of developmentally disabled artists from Oakland's Creative Growth Art Center standing next to their own work. The pièce de résistance, however, is Yerba Buena's latest commission, Blow Up by local hero Scott Snibbe, an interactive piece (part of "Big Deal") that transforms patrons' breath into what press materials describe as a "gallery-sized field of wind." Through April 3 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission (at Third Street), S.F. Admission is free-$12; call 978-2787 or visit (Jane Tunks) Reviewed Jan. 19.

"Cine Delirio." Surrealism is so strongly associated with Salvador Dali's limp clocks and René Magritte's apple-faced guy that we sometimes forget the style isn't just a footnote in art history books. As practiced by young and groovy artists like Shawn Barber, Eric Joyner, Lee Harvey Roswell, and Nathan Spoor -- all of whose works form this exhibition -- surrealism lives, breathes, and bleeds into the consciousness in quirky, sometimes unsettling ways. Barber's shiny kewpie dolls, for example, have creepy distorted faces or quail helplessly before an onslaught of floating doughnuts; Joyner's vintage tin robots ride toy cars through sullen landscapes awash in lurking dangers; Roswell's canvases teem with disembodied penises and eyeballs; and Spoor's images combine techie-looking comic-book methods with nightmare scenes. Through March 5 at the Shooting Gallery, 839 Larkin (at O'Farrell), S.F. Admission is free; call 931-8035 or visit (Joyce Slaton) Reviewed Feb. 16.

"Jim Campbell: New Work." With a new series of images mounted on light boxes, Campbell infuses static imagery with the energy and dynamism of his kinetic light sculptures. Using a software program that he himself engineered, he overlays multiple photographs of the scene outside New York's 2004 Republican convention with a high-resolution technique that allows us to read several splintered layers at once. The result is a crisp kaleidoscope of incensed faces, slogan-scrawled posterboards, skyscrapers, and barricades that effectively conveys the chaotic energy and sensory overload of the protests. Also on view is a group of translucent photographic panels in which shadowy figures move through mundane street scenes and mount the steps of the New York Public Library. A grid of programmed LED light pixels behind the screens casts these vague forms, lending the images an air of dark foreboding. Through March 5 at the Hosfelt Gallery, 430 Clementina (at Fifth Street), S.F. Admission is free; call 495-5454 or visit (Adrienne Gagnon) Reviewed Feb. 23.

"The Kingdom of Siam: The Art of Central Thailand 1350-1800." Religion's so controversial in San Francisco that spats periodically erupt over the nondescript cross atop Mount Davidson. So it may be challenging for us locals to understand the thrall that Buddhism has held over Thailand's visual arts. In a country of bright flowers and green mountains and sapphire water, what have the people painted and sculpted repeatedly? The Buddha, in bronze and sandstone, in murals and jewelry and temple objects, always smiling the gentle smile that denotes his inner peace and often capped with the unicorn horn-like "Thai flame" that symbolizes his spiritual energy. Yes, you'll see Buddhas aplenty in this groundbreaking new exhibit organized by the Asian Art Museum, but the charms of the 87 objects on display don't end there. The exhibition focuses on the classical arts of the kingdom of Ayutthaya, a great artistic center for more than 400 years until its artifacts were demolished by a 1767 Burmese invasion. But some amazing fragments live on in "The Kingdom of Siam," most of them culled from Buddhist temples -- richly carved figures of gods and goddesses, temple doors inlaid with elaborate mother-of-pearl designs. There are some secular trinkets, too, particularly magnificent brocade textiles shot through with gold. Through May 8 at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin (at McAllister), S.F. Admission is free-$10; call 581-3500 or visit (Joyce Slaton) Reviewed Feb. 16.

"Photo." This stylish SOMA gallery (which also features a full wine, beer, and sake bar) has assembled an admirable group show of contemporary photography. Standouts include Chris Anthony's staged photographs criticizing America's hawkish foreign policy: One powerful image mimics the horrific Abu Ghraib snapshots, with a bare-chested Arab suspended in midair -- knocked back, apparently, by the force of a soldier's castigating pointed finger -- against the backdrop of a distressed U.S. flag. Stephanie Morgan's grid of 32 photos of women looking up, mouths agape, as though waiting for the sky to fall, is cleverly printed on slabs of concrete. And blind photographer Pete Eckhert contributes a group of high-contrast prints that explores nonvisual means of perception. Taken with an infrared camera that senses the heat emitted by people and objects, these striking photos shun facades to draw forms and volumes from within. Through March 5 at Varnish Fine Art, 77 Natoma (at Second Street), S.F. Admission is free; call 222-6131 or visit (Adrienne Gagnon) Reviewed Feb. 23.

"Robert Bechtle: A Retrospective," "Robert Bechtle Prints," and "Robert Bechtle." The middle-class slopes of Potrero Hill and the suburban roads of Alameda don't exactly scream with picturesque possibility, but painter Robert Bechtle has spent his life turning them into art. Using the mundane as fodder for his masterpieces, Bechtle finds riveting subjects in the most ordinary of things. The everyday-ness of his paintings brings with it a familiarity that is tangible, but the uncanny exactitude of his lines, shadows, and sun rays is what makes his landscapes so realistic and inviting. A Bay Area native with an artistic career that spans half a century, the 72-year-old painter is now having his first major retrospective at SFMOMA. Bechtle's career, however, has not been limited to painting. This month, Gallery Paule Anglim features a selection of his recent drawings, while Crown Point Press shows a survey of his prints, which range from lithographs made in his garage to traditional woodblock prints made in China. "Robert Bechtle: A Retrospective" runs through June 5 at SFMOMA, 151 Third St. (at Mission), S.F. Admission is $6-10; call 357-4000 or visit "Robert Bechtle Prints" runs through April 2 at Crown Point Press, 20 Hawthorne (at Folsom), S.F. Admission is free; call 974-6273 or visit "Robert Bechtle" runs through March 5 at Gallery Paule Anglim, 14 Geary (at Kearny), S.F. Admission is free; call 433-2710 or visit (Hiya Swanhuyser) Reviewed Feb. 16.


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