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Our critics weigh in on local exhibits

"Marking Time." Ever wondered how many strokes it takes to make a painting? Ask Robert Sagerman. Applying dollops of paint with a palette knife, he keeps track of every color and stroke of each of his dense, multicolored, abstract paintings. Inspired by complex cabalistic readings of Jewish scripture -- in which each letter can also be read as a number -- the works have cryptic titles like 49:7,171 and 37:6,702, where the first number refers to the number of colors in the painting and the second documents the number of strokes. For Sagerman, painting is a ritualistic, meditative practice in which the obsessive recording of each decision and gesture is a way to focus and clear the mind. The resulting paintings are suitably contemplative squares or rectangles covered with overlapping layers of hue applied with machinelike regularity. This evenness is disrupted by the irregular edges of the paint and the eye-bending optical sensation created by intense, vibrating color. The chunks of paint are so thick they cast deep shadows, giving the works not only a sense of depth, but also an almost sculptural presence. The effect is something like gazing at a wall covered in ivy: At first it seems mundane, but on closer inspection it reveals subtly seductive patterns. Through July 2 at Brian Gross Fine Art, 49 Geary (between Kearny and Grant), Fifth Floor, S.F. Admission is free; call 788-1050 or visit (Sharon Mizota) Reviewed May 25.

"New Work: Marilyn Minter." A single ice-blue eye looks uninterestedly into the distance, surrounded by a thick layer of cosmetic lacquer somewhere between the colors of blood and flamingo. It's a beautiful image, but not a happy one: Has the eye been made up to look injured? The photorealist painting in question, LA to NYC, leaves the viewer confused, but unable to look away. It and a slew of other glittering, color-drenched, large-scale photographs and paintings comprise this show, which will probably net the New York artist a raging horde of devoted S.F. fans. Through July 24 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St. (at Mission), S.F. Admission is free-$10; call 357-4000 or visit (Hiya Swanhuyser) Reviewed April 13.

"Robert Bechtle: A Retrospective." 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 here in town. Through June 5 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St. (at Mission), S.F. Admission is free-$10; call 357-4000 or visit (Hiya Swanhuyser) Reviewed Feb. 16.

"Spore." Not content with pencils, charcoal, or chalk, Jim Toia creates ethereal, abstract drawings in a most unlikely medium: mushroom spore. The powdery seeds, in gold or silvery white, create dramatic, smoky trails on the specially textured black paper, suggesting wisps of fog or, more fancifully, a swooping poltergeist. The drawings are also reminiscent of X-rays and sunprints (images made by placing objects on light-sensitive paper that's then exposed to the sun). As direct imprints of organic matter, they're something like a science experiment. Toia forages for the mushrooms himself, and often records the names of the places where he finds them in the works' titles. But the images are more than documents of a mushroom gatherer's fancy; they both reference the natural world and evoke an otherworldly mystery. Some pieces, like Rover (Big Sur), look like ghostly versions of floral patterns or prints, while Beauregard suggests a pile of human skulls. Once in a while an imprint of the ridges on a mushroom's underside reveals the spore's origins, but it could just as easily suggest other natural forms, such as jellyfish or insects. Part Rorschach test, part apparition, the drawings are elegant and surprisingly lyrical, reminding us of the mysterious beauty of nature. Through June 4 at the Haines Gallery, 49 Geary (between Kearny and Grant), Fifth Floor, S.F. Admission is free; call 397-8114 or visit (Sharon Mizota) Reviewed May 25.

"Weedee Peepo: Portraits, Icons, y Gente." This first in a series of exhibits commemorating Galería de la Raza's 35th anniversary is a tribute to its community. Although its title is somewhat unfortunate -- a phonetic spelling of an accented "We the people" -- the exhibit is smartly curated given the broad topic and time frame. Representative works from the Galería's founders and key artists span three decades but are carefully selected and arranged to show a remarkable continuity of style and purpose. A classic of feminist and Chicana art, Yolanda López's 1978 Self-Portrait as the Virgin of Guadalupe displays affinities with Ester Hernández's pastel drawings of prominent Latino women; Barbara Carrasco's 2004 portrait of labor organizer Dolores Huerta takes its clean, graphic style from the activist posters of the '70s. Among the contemporary works, Gabriela Hasbun's color photographs of older Mission District businesses that have survived gentrification are quirky documents of a changing cultural and economic landscape. But you don't have to set foot inside to see the show's most exciting work: Installed in the gallery's storefront windows, Pato Herbert's lenticular photographs -- the faceted technology that turns kitschy images of Jesus into Mary and back again -- convert his black-and-white images of youth into interactive portraits of racial harmony. From a series titled "No Haters Here," the large backlit faces change from black to Latino to Asian as you stroll by. Through June 4 at Galería de la Raza, 2857 24th St. (at Bryant), S.F. Admission is free; call 826-8009 or visit (Sharon Mizota) Reviewed April 27.


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