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Our critics weigh in on local exhibits

"2x4." Wallpaper is cool again. Design collective 2x4's first solo museum exhibit is plastered from floor to ceiling with vertical strips of the stuff, each documenting a different design project. Best known for collaborations with star-chitect Rem Koolhaas, 2x4's forte is the marriage of graphic design and three-dimensional environments. Its designs of wallpaper, signs, logos, and books are based on impeccable research and executed with eye-grabbing moxie. A case in point: the collective's schema for the interior of the Koolhaas-designed campus center at the Illinois Institute of Technology, which weaves history and present-day reality into one elegant, visual statement. The building is swathed in mural-size images of the grave faces of the institute's founders; on closer inspection, they dissolve into thousands of cheeky icons depicting student activities. Elsewhere, a series of custom wallpapers for Prada stores features strikingly anti-consumerist imagery: a stadium crowd holding up cards to form pictures of Maoist peasants; diagrams detailing the manifestly un-Prada-esque body measurements of the average American; and a patently fake, Edenic landscape populated by eerie, sexless, candy-colored mannequins. It's hardly the typical image of perfection that makes you want to buy, buy, buy, but then again, Prada shoppers might already be beyond all aspiration. The innovative exhibition design successfully embodies the collective's bold aesthetic and is fun to look at, but unfortunately, its small scale and close quarters make it difficult to absorb the details, which is where 2x4's true genius lies. Through Nov. 27 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St. (at Mission), S.F. Admission is free-$12.50; call 357-4000 or visit (Sharon Mizota) Reviewed June 29.

"Beautiful Debris." Fast foodtype art really isn't so bad, especially for those of us whose attention spans preclude lengthy sprees around the esoterica of gallery walls. And it's nice to have something outrageous (and something that warrants a five-minute look-see) scream out at you. Sculptor David Hevel's It's Official ... Britney's Pregnant! is one of the brash, Baroque pieces in "Beautiful Debris," an exhibition that floridly covers the craft-making theatrics of three different artists who supply viewers with plenty of eye candy. Hevel's piece -- a 6-foot-tall deer squirting plastic milk from multiple breasts and gamboling through a verdant plot of flowers, ribbon, and rhinestones -- combines the kitschy sang-froid of Takashi Murakami's inflatable dolls with the uncultivated aesthetics of a 9-year-old girl. Cristina Lei Rodriguez's pieces are prettified doodads of liquid plastic, foam, and consumer objects that resemble foliage in sexy poses, while Tara Giannini glams it up with her mixed-media paintings, which suggestively project peacock feathers, glass beads, and voluptuous layers of paint. Call it what you will, but it's definitely a lesson in good old excess and pop fun. Through Aug. 20 at the Heather Marx Gallery, 77 Geary (at Grant), Second Floor, S.F. Admission is free; call 627-9111 or visit (Nirmala Nataraj) Reviewed July 20.

"Flip Sides." In this age of mash-ups, remixes, and quick cuts, Lowell Darling's collages of found film seem almost quaint. Mining Hollywood dumpsters, he splices the casualties of the lab and the editing bay into mysterious combinations, then blows them up and digitally prints the results on long paper scrolls. Hollywood Archeology #1 is a column of film leaders -- the frames of numbers or text that precede the movie into the projector. Furiously etched with machine-made scratches, when enlarged they unexpectedly resemble the grand gestures of abstract expressionist painting. Other pieces remix pop culture: Frames from a child's alphabet primer segue into scenes of a woman's naked thigh; bottles of medication float atop a misty mountain landscape. Like artifacts from another era, these discarded moments seem both strange and familiar. Although they're the parts of the movie we never see, they still feel like touchstones in our popular subconscious. Darling's work reminds us that film is itself a kind of archaeology, stringing myriad separate moments into an eternal, seamless present. But in these days of hyperaccelerated pop-culture recycling, his seemingly random collisions leave us wanting more -- a hint of sarcasm, perhaps, or a clearer point of view. Through Aug. 26 at Gallery 16, 1616 16th St. (at Rhode Island), Third Floor, S.F. Admission is free; call 626-7495 or visit (Sharon Mizota) Reviewed July 27.

"Joto." This group exhibition of queer artists from Latino communities is intended to shock: The name "Joto" itself is the Spanish word for "faggot," and a featured piece, Who Would Jesus Torture? by Clinton Fein, displays a crucified George W. Bush near-nude on the cross sporting an erect "missile," flanked by Rumsfeld belting Hussein to an electric chair. Other artists take a milder approach, notably the self-taught Tony de Carlo, whose colorful portraits blend the spirituality of Mexican icon art with the soul of urban Los Angeles. Through July 31 at the Amaru Gallery, 510 Valencia (at 16th Street), S.F. Admission is free; call 552-3787 or visit (Michael Leaverton) Reviewed June 22.

"Looking for Ixtlan." Jose Alvarez's austerely beautiful installation turns out to be pretty heady stuff. His "paintings" and works on paper are made of shards of opalescent crystal and porcupine quills -- materials inspired by Carlos Castaneda's "objects of power" in his book Journey to Ixtlan (a dubious account of his search for enlightenment through hallucinogenic mushrooms and a Mexican shaman named Don Juan). Alvarez blends Castaneda's New Age tenets with the languages of space exploration and high art, arranging the quills in the installation's title piece to form a graph of a transmission from outer space, and layering flakes of crystal to simulate abstract paintings (purportedly "pure" art without reference to the outside world). His mixing of these disparate systems of thought -- neo-shamanism, outer space exploration, and abstract art -- reveals how all three are ways in which people seek transcendence. By comparing Castaneda's untrustworthy account with scientific and artistic pursuits, he casts doubt on the ways in which we understand truth, suggesting that the very notion is a fiction. Of course, you have to do a little reading (or talk with the artist, as I did) to get all of the subtleties, but Alvarez's works are beguiling enough on their own to inspire more questions. Through Aug. 21 at Ratio 3, 903 Guerrero (at 21st Street), S.F. Admission is free; call (646) 732-2767 or visit (Sharon Mizota) Reviewed July 27.


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