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Our critics weigh in on local exhibits 

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"The Dust Never Settles." In this thought-provoking group exhibit, four contemporary artists respond to the centennial of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Inspired by photographs of survivors setting up "house" outdoors with only their furniture, Claudia Tennyson's repurposed domestic objects are both inventive and cautionary. An easy chair draped in an emergency-orange slipcover, Untitled (Chair) includes handy pockets for knitting and Kleenex, as well as a toothbrush, fly swatter, and rubber gloves, reminding us that the comforts of home are precarious. Kate Pocrass photographs the one item — some conventional (a locket, a doll), some idiosyncratic (a pirate flag, a hard drive) — that a person would take with him in an evacuation. Printed alongside an explanatory quote on posters, they're quirky symbols of what's really important. (They'll also grace city kiosks and a blog starting July 1.) In comparison, Margaret Tedesco's flip books of confrontational scenes from old movies seem impersonal and out of place. Far more intriguing is The Rate of Transfer, in which artist Patricia Diart will spend the duration of the exhibition reconstructing a demolished kitchen in the window at the View 155 gallery. Footage of several large men dismantling the kitchen plays on a monitor, while behind it you can watch the diminutive Diart diligently piecing together the same room from piles of cracked and broken parts. The contrast between the video and the performance reminds us that destruction is far easier and quicker than recovery; though Diart's efforts are a heroic attempt to restore what has been lost, the place will never be the same. In our post-Katrina moment, it's a poignant reminder that no amount of rebuilding can ever turn back the clock. Through Aug. 26 at SFAC Gallery, 401 Van Ness (at Grove); View 155, 155 Grove (at Polk); and the San Francisco Public Library, Main Branch, 100 Larkin (at Grove), all in S.F. Admission is free; call 554-6080 or visit www.sfacgallery.org. (Sharon Mizota) Reviewed June 28.

"The Elegant Gathering: The Yeh Family Collection." This exhibition takes bygone practices and concludes that the meticulous clay work of Korea is not as remote as it 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. 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.

"Sequence." Timothy Nolan's reductive paintings are paroxysms of obsessive patterning. Inspired by the weave and texture of fabric, their networks of lines and simple shapes look both mathematical and natural, suggesting constellations, crystalline structures, or light filtering through trees. The large painting Converge is a net of white starbursts on black that creates the illusion of a faceted, organic texture. It's as if Nolan started in the center and just kept riffing on his system of lines until he got to the edges of the paper. Surge is a smaller work that feels more decorous and self-contained; its arrangement of marks floats just short of the edge of the panel. Nolan makes no attempt to hide the quality of his brushwork, and gets a surprising range of effects out of what is essentially the same arrangement — intersecting starbursts that form prisms of shimmering black, white, silver, and gray. The vibrations of shapes and tones are enchanting, all the more so for the casualness with which they're executed and the simplicity of their materials. Slide, the exhibit's only sculptural piece, is an array of triangles of white and gray card stock affixed to rows of fishing line with metal office clips. It creates a flickering, unexpectedly complex web of light and shade. This balance of abstract pattern and everyday style gives the works a delicacy and physical presence that's quirky, yet sublime. Through July 8 at Heather Marx Gallery, 77 Geary (at Grant), Second Floor, S.F. Admission is free; call 627-9111 or visit www.heathermarxgallery.com. (Sharon Mizota) Reviewed June 28.

"Shomei Tomatsu: Skin of the Nation." This first U.S. retrospective of the Japanese photographer's oeuvre cuts a wide swath through the modern history of Japan. Captured with candor and a gentle intelligence, Tomatsu's subjects encompass the everyday effects of WWII devastation, American military occupation, and the ensuing Westernization of Japan. His eye for telling detail and critical nuance gives his works an immediacy and freshness that balances the specific humanity of his subjects with stories of national and global proportions. For example, his pictures of atomic bomb survivors are restrained and demure, while his images of the objects that survived the blast speak volumes. The vessel in Bottle Melted and Deformed by Atomic Bomb Heat, Radiation, and Fire, Nagasaki is twisted and bloated like a deformed limb or a mutant fetus. It's a graphic stand-in for the devastated flesh and psyches of the bombs' human survivors, whose scars Tomatsu was too respectful to probe fully with the camera. This sensitivity also shows up in his ambivalent portraits of Americans during the occupation. Part of a series titled "Chewing Gum and Chocolate" (after the treats that U.S. soldiers handed out to Japanese children), some images are overtly critical — two young black men harassing a Japanese woman, the sole of a white soldier's boot looming above the camera — but others capture a tentative air of unease that betrays Tomatsu's sympathy for even the most antipathetic subjects. Through Aug. 16 at SFMOMA, 151 Third St. (between Mission and Howard), S.F. Admission is free-$12.50; call 357-4000 or visit www.sfmoma.org. (Sharon Mizota) Reviewed May 31.

"The Three Gorges Project: Paintings by Liu Xiaodong." To make way for China's Three Gorges Dam, thousands of villages will be submerged and more than a million people displaced along the Yangzi River. Liu's massive paintings of the region are suitably panoramic, but their balance of carefully observed detail and symbolic elements reveals not just the vast scope of the project, but also its darker human toll. In Displaced Population, six tired-looking men stand above the valley where the dam is being built holding a long metal rod on their shoulders. Composed of four panels, the image is slightly misaligned at each seam so that the rod shifts upward from left to right. Presaging the rising level of the water, it also charts a quietly building emotional tension. In the background, we see the transition in more literal terms: The gray ruins of a demolished city give way to a riverbed dotted with bright blue construction tents. Newly Displaced Population tracks a generation gap, juxtaposing wayward little boys with toy guns, disaffected teenagers, and lonely middle-aged men. Tumbling improbably through the dull sky above them is a duck that looks as if it's just been shot, a crystallization of latent violence. Throughout, Liu's loose, casual brushwork makes the works feel like snapshots of a transitional moment, capturing the evanescence of an old way of life and the brutish birth of a new one. Through July 16 at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin (at McAllister), S.F. Admission is free-$10; call 581-3500 or visit www.asianart.org. (Sharon Mizota) Reviewed April 26.

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