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Our critics weigh in on local exhibits 

"Chance*: A Contemporary Art Installation From Guatemala." Americans may be notorious navel-gazers, but we do occasionally wonder what's going on in the rest of the world. Now would be an extra good time to stretch the ol' consciousness toward cosmopolitanism, what with the global spotlight elsewhere for once. Don't worry, no cartoons are scheduled for "Chance*." Instead, photography, performance, and installation pieces reflect the concerns of a youngish but accomplished group of Latin American artists. Guess what? They're pissed about human rights abuses, obsessed with rusty train cars, and into cryptic comments on childhood, just like artists here in the Bay Area (and around the world). Curator Veronique Simar put together this exhibition from her hometown of Guatemala City. Through Feb. 23 at the SomArts Cultural Center, 934 Brannan (at Eighth Street), S.F. Admission is free; call 863-1414 or visit (Hiya Swanhuyser) Reviewed Feb. 15.

"Chuck Close: Self-Portraits 1967-2005." Step up to a Chuck Close painting and you'll see squares filled with abstract shapes, a precise arrangement of dots, or some other technique in miniature. Step back and you'll see Chuck Close. For nearly four decades the artist has rendered his own head, moving through styles but always retaining his signature mug-shot angle. Featuring more than 80 works, this show traces the arc of his astonishingly single-minded career. Since 1967 Close has stuck to his technique, laying a grid over a photo and painstakingly transferring the data in each square to a 9-foot-tall canvas with an airbrush. But along the way the grid itself started showing up, scoring the portraits with crosshatched lines, and Close began filling the squares with shapes, dots, and other designs. In 1988, he experienced chest pain while attending an arts ceremony at Gracie Mansion; by the end of the night he was nearly paralyzed. In rehabilitation, he strapped a brush to his wrist, trained his arm to do the work of his hand, and never looked back. Through Feb. 28 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 (Michael Leaverton) Reviewed Nov. 16, 2005.

"Dispersed: African Legacy/New World Reality." If you worried that the Museum of the African Diaspora might be the latest incarnation of dogmatic political correctness, fear not. This sophisticated inaugural exhibition of contemporary art asserts that African-American identity is a slippery, multifaceted thing. The featured artists explore diverse cultural and political histories with varying degrees of success, but their works all defy easy categorization. Most compelling is Safe House by San Francisco's Mildred Howard, a dainty house frame made of butter knives and carpeted with piles of silver -- dishes, platters, tureens, and the like. Toward the front of the house the objects are shiny and polished, but toward the back they're increasingly battered and tarnished, snaking out behind the house, where the butter knives become carving knives stuck violently into the wall. It's easy to read the piece as an allegory of the distance between master and slave, but it also eloquently suggests the oppression of women's domestic labor and the disparity between public face and private tragedy. Brazilian artist Marepe's installation of monks' robes -- an ambivalent attempt to redeem the Catholic missionaries who helped colonize much of the Americas -- is unnecessarily large and a bit obtuse. While Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons' video installation exploring her Afro-Cuban identity is multilayered and evocative, it never quite achieves the poetry it strives for. But perhaps more important than their individual merits are the ways in which these works defy stereotypical motifs and attitudes to honor the complexity and richness of the African-American experience. Through March 12 at MoAD, 685 Mission (at Third Street), S.F. Admission is free-$8; call 358-7200 or visit (Sharon Mizota) Reviewed Dec. 28, 2005.

"Heavy Weather." When artist Julie Mehretu began her residency at Crown Point Press, Hurricane Katrina had just hit the Gulf Coast. The coincidence lends extra weight to this stellar exhibition of prints and drawings, whose swirling lines and tumultuous, topsy-turvy sense of space resemble powerful forces of nature. The show's highlights are three large-scale (28 inches by 40 inches) etchings created during the residency, superb translations into printed form of Mehretu's energetic drawing style. They emphasize the graphic impulse that literally underlies many of her paintings, which are often created on top of tracings of maps and other diagrams. This impulse is particularly evident in Circulation, in which a complex vocabulary of stark black lines evokes chrysanthemum petals, dandelion spores, or other organic matter, gusting and coalescing over a pattern of intersecting pinwheels outlined in a delicate red. The piece shows striking affinities with the concise lines of Japanese woodblock prints, a similarity borne out by the spatial tension between the depth created by the black lines and the flat, topographical feel emphasized by the red. It's also a treat to see the selection of drawings, which reveal with more immediacy a sense of the artist's hand and thought process. It's a bit like looking over the shoulder of a (very accomplished) doodler, a view into an impromptu, stream-of-consciousness world. Through March 11 at Crown Point Press, 20 Hawthorne (at Howard), S.F. Admission is free; call 974-6273 or visit (Sharon Mizota) Reviewed Feb. 22.

"Inhabited." Bay Area painter Aaron Petersen starts with a sheet of aluminum and lets his oils flow and pool on the surface. Then he picks up a brush for the detail work, dabbing colorful swoops and whorls, often tightly grouped, resulting in bubbly, smoking abstractions, a cross between the trippy and the scientific. "The marks I make reference living in a contemporary urban environment," he says. "I am intrigued by how individual parts stand alone, and how the dynamics change when grouped together." Through March 18 at the Braunstein/Quay Gallery, 430 Clementina (at Fifth Street), S.F. Admission is free; call 278-9850 or visit (Michael Leaverton) Reviewed Feb. 15.

"Under the Crooked Bough, We Stopped to Catch Our Breath." CCA grads Marci Washington and Alika Cooper each employ their own brand of faux-naive style to illustrate scenes from works of literary fiction. Washington's paintings of ghostly-pale figures, lonely manor houses, and eerie, disembodied hands are clearly inspired by some Gothic novel, and owe a debt to the whimsical yet macabre illustrations of Edward Gorey. Deceptively simple, their flat black backgrounds and reductive lines look unfinished and awkward, but suggest the openness and brevity of the mind's eye. Cooper's works are similarly fragmentary, but while Washington's look almost folksy, Cooper's feel more contrived, like the work of a skilled painter trying to paint poorly. Her portraits of women resemble bad copies of celebrity head shots and appear to be titled accordingly. The woman in Cybil looks like a pre-Moonlighting Cybill Shepherd, while the face in Jane 1 could be that of a young Jane Fonda. The works evoke adolescent idolatry, that ambivalent state in which it's not clear if the desired is the person you want or the person you want to be. Unfortunately for Cooper, it's well-trod ground, most notably by painter Karen Kilimnik, who has been mining teenage ardor with much more insight for years. While Washington and Cooper make pleasing paintings, they fail to push beyond a rather conventional vision of the relationship between literature and the imaginary. Through April 23 at the Receiver Gallery, 1314 Eighth Ave. (at Irving), S.F. Admission is free; call 504-7287 or visit (Sharon Mizota) Reviewed Feb. 22.


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