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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 recently 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 circlelike 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.

"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 hornlike "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.

"Life Cycle Analysis." This earnest installation by NoMe Edonna, Ricardo Richey, and Andrew Schoultz (members of a graffiti team called the Gestalt Collective) is designed to raise awareness about the staggering amounts of waste generated by our culture of consumption. A tsunami of trash pours forth from an obsolete TV set and towers over the entrance to the exhibition, sweeping up plastic products and Styrofoam peanuts in its wake. The room's corners sport dystopian wall drawings of brick factories belching smoke, razed trees, and fields of billboards, while a cardboard cyclone stretches to the ceiling from a barge in the center of the room. The show verges on preachy -- the walls are stenciled with alarming facts about the sheer volume of garbage we produce and the inadequacies of recycling -- but it sure is effective. Through April 16 at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (at 15th Street), S.F. Admission is free; call 626-2787 or visit (Adrienne Gagnon) Reviewed March 30.

"Robert Bechtle: A Retrospective" and "Robert Bechtle Prints." 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: 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 29 at Crown Point Press, 20 Hawthorne (at Folsom), S.F. Admission is free; call 974-6273 or visit (Hiya Swanhuyser) Reviewed Feb. 16.

"Shopdropping: Experiments in the Aisle." Various artists sneakily subvert the retail juggernaut for this guerrilla group show. Packard Jennings handcrafted a Benito Mussolini action figure, complete with blister card, and recorded his exchange with a baffled Wal-Mart cashier at his attempt to purchase it. Marijke Jorritsma worked with the Boys & Girls Club of San Francisco to produce charming ceramic doppelgängers for canned goods and dish soap that they then "reverse shoplifted" onto supermarket shelves. Text artists were invited to create their own "tags" for clothing, inserting haikus and snarky platitudes ("I'll feel so much better when my life resembles that of someone better than I") in place of fabric care instructions. The projects on view are by turns hilarious and heartwarming, infusing corporate commercialism with a much-needed dose of humanity. Through April 10 at Pond, 324 14th St. (at Valencia), S.F. Admission is free; call 437-9151 or visit (Adrienne Gagnon) Reviewed March 30.


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