Our critics weigh in on local exhibits

"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 (Sharon Mizota) Reviewed June 28.

"Furnishing Assumptions." The antic living-room suites, bound and gagged, and somber chair memorials in "Furnishing Assumptions" offer fresh perspective for shoppers seeking apartment therapy. In drawings, sculptures, and photographs, varying in size from small to huge, these artists use furniture as metaphors for people and all the vicissitudes of the human condition. Scott Oliver's The Valley, an ingenious HO-gauge toy-train-scaled landscape created from a disemboweled overstuffed chair (included in the piece) is the star of the show. (Now where to put it?) Roy McMakin's striking black-and-white Untitled demands to be seen as a painting/sculpture combo, although it functions as a splendid desk. In My Living Room Is a Martian Colony, Gilles Barbier photographs the scruffy interior of his Marseilles digs — actual size — and desperately suggests to the viewer (with signs in flawed English syntax) that this is really Mars. We don't believe him. A pair of Wendy Maruyama's handmade chairs, the gallery's stock furnishings, sit idly by, begging to be included. They suggest that there's more to the gallery owner's furniture fetish than meets the eye. Bargains (all the carefully staged and altered photographs by Alex Clausen) and blue-chips (Chair 1965-2000 by Richard Artschwager and Kaiserliches Hofmobiliendepot Wien IV by Candida Höfer) are both available. Hurry on down! Through Aug. 19 at Rena Bransten Gallery, 77 Geary (between Kearny and Grant), S.F. Admission is free; call 982-3292 or visit (Lea Feinstein) Reviewed July 26.

"Liquid Paper." Hot topics coolly rendered abound in the figurative works-on-paper at Ratio 3. Director Chris Perez favors art that is well made, spare, and emotionally distant no matter how edgy the subject. His taste was honed studying photographs by Jacques Henri Lartigue, Henri Cartier-Bresson, László Moholy-Nagy, and Alexander Rodchenko, so it's not surprising that in "Liquid Paper" he selects drawings that are photo-based (Rebecca Schiffman's Computer Lit, Colter Jacobsen's Narcissus Bay, and Amanda Kirkuff's Billy & Chubby).The show's title, a brand of typing correction fluid, suggests fluidity of subject as well as media. In Violence on Paper, Dasha Shiskin pens combative three-in-one amorphous figures. Cliff Hengst's Untitled evokes eloquent blurred figures emerging from flowing wash. Lutz Bacher's dual video piece, Spud, stars a personable animated loop endlessly bending and unbending. In Moriceau + Mrzyk's untitled circular drawings, figures, plants, and objects merge and morph in sexy and comic dreamlike sequences. Work by internationally known names (Raymond Pettibon, Kara Walker, Louise Bourgeois, and R. Crumb) hangs side by side with that of Bay Area artists and recent art school graduates. What holds the show together is Perez's highly selective eye and the informality and intimacy of the works on paper. Through Aug. 6 (with "Pure Land") at Ratio 3, 903 Guerrero (at 21st St.), S.F. Admission is free; call 821-3371 or visit (Lea Feinstein) Reviewed July 26.

"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. 13 at SFMOMA, 151 Third St. (between Mission and Howard), S.F. Admission is free-$12.50; call 357-4000 or visit (Sharon Mizota) Reviewed May 31.

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