Our critics weigh in on local exhibits

"Bulfinch's Recycling Yard: Vik Muniz Pictures of Junk." Brazilian artist Vik Muniz' huge photographs are literally pictures of junk, albeit junk arranged in the shape of scenes from Greco-Roman mythology. Muniz gathers the refuse from a junkyard and carts it to a nearby warehouse, where he and a team of assistants coax it into an outline of Prometheus (as conceived by Renaissance painter Titian) or Narcissus (after an image by Baroque artist Caravaggio). The large-scale drawings — in square footage probably the size of an average San Francisco apartment — are an ingenious use of assorted materials: office furniture, metal gears, pipes, rope, crushed soda cans, toys, mannequins, etc. Sometimes an object's placement cleverly refers to the subject of the image. In Bacchus Astride a Barrel, After Rubens, for example, the god of wine is flanked by an open refrigerator and some barrels. In other cases, castoffs are transformed: Mars, God of War, After Diego Velazquez sports a glimmering loincloth studded with crushed Pepsi cans. By re-creating these famous paintings in garbage, Muniz drags art history (and the foundation of Western culture, classical mythology) through the trash heap. The photographs are also amazing documents of the sheer mass of stuff we throw away. More interesting is that Muniz appears to use the same stuff over and over — particular items, such as a brown office desk, a bright blue plastic basket, and skeins of red netting, appear in multiple pictures — so that the rubbish becomes one giant Etch-a-sketch. Through May 27 at Rena Bransten Gallery, 77 Geary (at Grant), S.F. Admission is free; call 982-3292 or visit www.renabranstengallery.com (Sharon Mizota) Reviewed April 26.

"The Elegant Gathering: The Yeh Family Collection" and "From the Fire: Contemporary Korean Ceramics." Two new exhibitions take bygone practices and conclude that the artistic lettering of China and the meticulous clay work of Korea are not as remote as they may first appear. "The Elegant Gathering" comprises 80 paintings and calligraphed items collected over three generations by the Yeh family, a Cantonese clan made up of imperial bureaucrats, national ambassadors, and college professors who represented the cultural illuminati of 20th-century China. The family's practice of yaji, or "elegant gatherings," at which rich people talked art and literature and engaged in some substantial commerce, is reflected in the delicate scrolls of masters like Mi Fu, Fu Shan, and Zhang Daqian. "From the Fire" also mixes up time-honored traditions with new ideas, presenting more than a hundred pieces by contemporary artists. The works of Hwang Jong Koo take traditional Korean celadon ware and juxtapose it against streamlined contemporary designs. In contrast, Hae Sin Ro's colored clay baubles have the subtle geometry of mass-produced techno art. Kim Jin Kyoung finds a happy medium between old and new with expressive pieces like Netting Clay I, a blouse made of porcelain shards and wire that suggests the organic and feminine nature of the medium. "From the Fire" continues through May 21 and "The Elegant Gathering" through Sept. 17 at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin (at McAllister), S.F. Admission is free-$10; call 581-3500 or visit www.asianart.org. (Nirmala Nataraj) Reviewed March 22.

"Jack London and the Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906." As the centennial of the 1906 earthquake fast approached (April 18 is the exact date), myriad commemorations were set to deluge us with pictures of buckled streets, ruined buildings, and survivors trundling their things in wheelbarrows. This show is no exception, but as curated by Philip L. Fradkin for the California Historical Society, it's a definitive, surprising look at what happened. Peering through the lens of a well-known author offers a familiarity other exhibitions won't have, and London's wife's diary, contemporary paper ephemera, and scenes from around Northern California are unique to this show: Fort Bragg demolished, Santa Rosa as piles of bricks, and flattened shacks in Willits are images you're unlikely to see elsewhere. And what can we learn from all this — at least those of us who don't wish to simply gawk like terror tourists? Keep your eyes open and you'll discover interesting bits of history. For example, the Ocean Shore Track railway was buried under a particularly dramatic landslide, but who even knew there was an Ocean Shore Track? Through June 10 at the California Historical Society, 678 Mission (at Third Street), S.F. Admission is free-$3; call 357-1848 or visit www.californiahistoricalsociety.org. (Hiya Swanhuyser) Reviewed March 22.

"Mark v. Mark." Who among us hasn't looked in the mirror and felt like his own worst enemy, harshest critic, or, on a good day, most enthusiastic (and flexible) ass-kisser? It's not a new concept, but artist Mark Lee Morris manifests it visually — and often hilariously — in his latest mixed-media show. Using video and photography, Morris depicts himself competing against and trying to win a date with himself on a faux TV game show; sending his unitard-clad form sailing, Baryshnikov-style, into his own arms; and calling his own bluff in a game of Texas Hold'em. At first glance Morris' stuff is fun and relatable, but beyond the entertainment factor lies the serious and multilayered issue of identity. Questions arise that are worthy of the therapist's couch: To what extent do we support or sabotage ourselves? How do we know when we're being true to ourselves? And is all this self-focus even healthy, or just so much vanity? Through May 24 at Mission 17, 2111 Mission (at 17th St.), Suite 401, S.F. Admission is free; call 336-2349 or visit www.mission17.com. (Maya Kroth) Reviewed April 19.

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