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"Facing the Mask." What is a face? Deborah Barrett never tires of the question, cutting up her own exquisite portrait drawings and reassembling them to create new personages. Profoundly asymmetrical, her rearranged physiognomies are strangely lifelike. Instinctively, we recognize that real people's faces are composed of dissonant features. Like Harry Harlow's monkeys — the 1950s psychologist found that primate babies formed attachments to dolls with the most minimal facial features, just button eyes and mouths — we accept even the most peculiar "face," and our brains struggle to hold the image together. Barrett is a master of the visual double entendre; in a related series of collages, she places fragments of antique engravings within a standard profile. These are odd, soft-featured females, pictures that at second glance reveal a sideways George Washington, the curls of a French dandy, or the drapery of a Greek philosopher. The eye switches back and forth between the two readings, amused and disturbed, calling to mind the famous visual pun of a young Victorian woman whose neckband becomes the mouth of an old woman. A trio of small-scale oil portraits with scribbled and hesitant strokes rendered in a palette of ochres, greens, and grays shows Barrett to be a sensitive painter as well as a collagist. She's also a sculptor, having created a colony of small fantastic beings in plaster whose sole features are their staring glass eyes. The modest scale of the works belies their power — and Barrett's fine artistic intelligence. Through Oct. 21 at Jack Fischer Gallery, 49 Geary (at Kearny), Suite 440, S.F. Admission is free; call 974-6273 or visit (Lea Feinstein) Reviewed Sept. 27.

"For Instance" and "Red Ribbon." One artist's cute toy is another's creepy nightmare or social commentary — just ask painter of big-eyed children Margaret Keane and her irony-drenched imitators. Liliana Porter at "For Instance" and Gideon Rubin at "Red Ribbon" (companion art exhibits) explore this seesaw effect. Porter's photos, prints, and fabric works often feature casts of tiny porcelain figurines against deep, monochromatic backgrounds. Their positioning and relationships say plenty, none of it probably intended by the original manufacturers of rosy-cheeked girlies or glossy penguins. Rubin's pale, washy paintings of toy soldiers and lonely dolls sleeping have a different feel. In his statement on the gallery's Web site, he suggests that his sadness at having been in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, is partially visible on his canvases. Through Oct. 14 at Hosfelt Gallery, 430 Clementina (at Fifth St.), S.F. Admission is free; call 495-5454 or visit (Hiya Swanhuyser) Reviewed Aug. 30.

"The Louisiana Project." Carrie Mae Weems is a photographer and poet, with an archivist's bent for unearthing trenchant historical documents. Her complex multipart exhibition, dealing with racial, sexual, and social roles in historic New Orleans, includes an original film with voice-over, a wall-to-wall installation of related film stills on large canvases, and three series of photographic narratives. In all the narratives she puts herself into the picture, and, like a poet, uses recurring rhythms and repetition to make her points. Each photograph acts as a stanza; the combined whole creates visual poems. In this exhibit Weems has created a template for a story that should be told and retold. Her gifts for poetic narrative and historic reconstruction create different, questioning ways of looking at our common past. Ideally the artist will be commissioned to return to New Orleans to ponder at length, and in greater depth, the course of history. Through Oct. 9 at the Museum of the African Diaspora, 685 Mission (at Third St.), S.F. Admission is $5-10; call 358-7200 or visit (Lea Feinstein) Reviewed Aug. 30.

"Nostalgia." For a group exhibit with this title, Lisa Kokin certainly nailed the theme. Her sewn-together pieces made of found photos and buttons will send you into reveries, from the dizzying accumulation of portraits in Best Wishes, carefully stitched into something like a family bush (rather than a tree), to her crazy button shapes, in which Kokin links the tiny items by the hundreds to form human and animal shapes. Lauren Gibbes, in turn, offers colorful, retro diptychs pairing dissimilar images that beg for connection. Phase 7 matches a glowing beauty queen with a glistening horse, and in Dirty South Part II, a shirtless man ravishing a buxom woman sits alongside a tall, erect, nearly throbbing farm silo that brings to mind a ... well, you get the idea. Also features work by Andrew Phares and Lisa Solomon. Through Oct. 14 at AfterModern, 445 Bryant (at Second St.), S.F. Admission is free; call 512-7678 or visit (Michael Leaverton) Reviewed Sept. 13.

"The Red Sweaters Deployment Project." Past wars affected American civilian life in the form of shortages, rationing, and proactive responses like victory gardens and can drives. We haven't been asked to sacrifice or contribute anything in response to the war in Iraq — we're encouraged to blithely continue business as usual while the far-off quagmire claims thousands of American lives and tens of thousands of Iraqi ones. Inspired by the lack of an acknowledged home front to this war — and by WWII propaganda posters encouraging civilians to "Knit for Victory!" — S.F. artist Nina Rosenberg began a campaign to knit one small red sweater for each American soldier killed in the war. Now gathered together and hung as an art installation, the tiny objects form an odd, poignant plea to recognize the death toll (nearly 3,000 U.S. lives at press time). Television viewers haven't seen a single coffin return from the Middle East, but one look at these thousands of little crafts, contributed by Rosenberg and concerned knitters around the world, acknowledges the tragedy by paying respect to both the loss of individuals and the numbing horror of a senselessly mounting body count. Through Oct. 28 at the Hardware Store Gallery, 3824 Mission (at Crescent), S.F. Admission is free; call 642-1505 or visit (Frances Reade) Reviewed Sept. 13.


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