Our critics weigh in on local exhibits

"Beaut Brute." Al Pacino's Scarface would approve. Taro Hattori's latest installation is a gangster's dream décor. The walls are lined with a row of assault rifles painstakingly constructed out of see-through plastic. In the center, two more rifles, of mirrored glass, lie casually atop a card table, also mirrored and trimmed in shaggy white fake fur. Above, the wall is draped with bunches of equally reflective, oversized grapes on fuzzy white vines, a cheap, disco-ized nod to the superabundance and amorality of Roman antiquity. The only thing missing is a few lines of coke. You could read Beaut Brute's exaggerated tackiness as a critique of the glamorization of violence, if the installation itself weren't guilty of same. By turning weapons into objets d'art, Hattori reminds us not only how we aestheticize mayhem, but also that guns are consumer goodies like anything else. Perhaps if the execution were a bit more streamlined, a little less funky, Hattori's intent would be clearer. The guns hover somewhere between coldly beautiful art and water guns on steroids. This ambivalence may ultimately be their message. Such products are really just exquisite toys for overgrown boys -- as in "Say hello to my little friend." Through Jan. 31 at Rocketworld, 660 22nd St. (at Third St.), S.F. Admission is free; call 318-8258 or visit www.rocketworld.org. (Sharon Mizota) Reviewed Dec. 28.

"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's 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 www.sfmoma.org. (Michael Leaverton) Reviewed Nov. 16.

"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 monk's 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 St.), S.F. Admission is free-$8; call 358-7200 or visit www.moadsf.org. (Sharon Mizota) Reviewed Dec. 28.

"The History of Photography Remix." With this exhibit, Kota Ezawa has achieved the South Park-ification of history. He subjects iconic photographs from newspapers, TV shows, movies, advertisements and art to the same process of tracing and redrawing -- remaking each in generic, flat solid colors. Beyond that, the only thing the images have in common is that they resonate in the popular consciousness: Marilyn Monroe, the atomic bomb, John and Yoko, the first Polaroid camera, Cindy Sherman, JonBenet Ramsey. Although the show includes images framed in lightboxes and re-created as paper cutouts, the pieces are most effective in a slideshow format. As the pictures flicker by, one by one, you gradually realize that all photographs are the same. They're all made the same way, regardless of whether they tell the truth. This idea is most forcefully expressed in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a 16mm film loop splicing together animations of the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln and JFK. The former is from a cinematic re-creation; the latter is the home movie footage we're all familiar with. Divested of contextual details and rendered in Ezawa's reductive shapes and colors, both sequences look cartoony and strange, almost comical. There's no real difference between the re-creation and the "real" footage -- they're both representations. In reducing all images to the same style, Ezawa levels them, calling into question our ascription of "reality" to certain images and "pretend" to others. Through Feb. 11 at Haines Gallery, 49 Geary (at Market), Fifth Floor, S.F. Admission is free; call 397-8114 or visit www.hainesgallery.com. (Sharon Mizota) Reviewed Jan. 25.

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