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Our critics review local visual arts exhibitions.

Building City Beautiful: Mayor Mott's Oakland — Century-old photographs, news clippings, telegraph transcripts, and book excerpts tell a tale of corruption, hope, and fire in early-20th-century Oakland at the Oakland Public Library. Timed to coincide with the centennial of Mayor Frank K. Mott's reign (1905-1915) and the San Francisco earthquake and fire (1906), the ironically named exhibit leaves a lot of questions unanswered about the place that was once called the "Carthage of the Pacific." (Through April 15 at the Oakland Main Library, 125 14th St., 2nd floor; OaklandLibrary.org or 510-238-3134.)

Dreaming California: Ruth-Marion Baruch, Bill Owens, and Larry Sultan — The West Coast is not yet settled. Wild hills abut SFO airport. Coyotes can still be seen in North Beach. (Scientists have actually tracked them crossing the Golden Gate bridge late at night from Marin County.) The coyote can put you in a dream trance that you can never wake up from. Dreaming California conjures some of the dream states endemic to this wild state, and in this case it's hippies, porn stars, and the denizens of suburbia. (Through May 21 at the Berkeley Art Museum; BAMPFA.berkeley.edu or 510-642-0808.)

Lewis & Clark: The Corps of Discovery — Tattoo Archive takes us back to a time when face tattoos on chicks were hot and faux-hawks could get you killed. The little ink-hole on San Pablo doesn't look like your traditional tattoo shop, what with all the bookshelves and evidence of scholarship. And it isn't. Owner C.W. Eldridge is a Berkeley tattooing legend, writer, and scholar. In commemoration of the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, he threw together a little exhibit of Indian ink. (Through July 31 at 2804 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley; TattooArchive.com or 510-548-5895.)

Natural Fallout — Intestinal piping, spirographic noodling, and oil paintings that are falling apart in their frames comprise this surprisingly coherent show by 33 Grand curator Alex Munn. Most dramatic: Lisa Stoneman's huge tapestries of abstract pipes dipped in milky amber. Her recipe includes a big sheet of fibrous white paper, five to seven gallons of clear acrylic paint (applied in layers; this takes weeks), knife cuts to create paint channels, colored acrylics, then more layers of clear acrylic on top. The things look bombproof, weigh upward of ten pounds, and come preloaded with totally original depth effects. More subdued are Amanda Hughen's equally abstract "critical mass" blobs generated by the convergence of geometrical lines and organic forms. Her 2-D work complements the ideas in the equally mellow work of Jonn Herschend, a Berkeley MFA student more interested in confronting the process of painting than objects themselves. Entropy has gotten hold of his quaint, domestic objects (couches, digital scanners) before he can finish them. (Through March 31 at 33 Grand Ave., Oakland; 33Grand.com)

New Works — The Pro Arts gallery near Jack London Square gets a new neighbor this month in the form of the Swarm Gallery, presenting professional yet innovative local stuff in its first show, "New Works." South facing floor-to ceiling windows, airy, vaulted ceilings with exposed white beams and a stained, waxed concrete floor welcome visitors into the front showroom, where the work is equally easy on the eye. Michael McDermott's thrilling oil on canvas "Blast" series embodies violence and spectacle, while his tinted urethane sculptures riot with the color and chaos of a picked booger. Berkeley MFA grad student John Herschend deliberately underwhelms with his intriguing trademark still lifes. He uses oil and galkyld on panel to depict mundane life that's falling apart at the brush stroke. Lastly, no port region opening would be complete with some meditation on the rigid, linear forms of commerce and urbanity. Ryan Reynolds remixes the famed Bay Bridge box truss, cargo container and freeway overpass shapes to capture the de facto abstract art among us. (Through April 28; 560 2nd St., Oakland; 510-839-2787.)

Project: Catch-22/Still Present Pasts — The Pro Arts gallery gets its war on this month with two heavy takes on human carnage. Outgoing curator and inveterate populist Christian Frock's final exhibit Project: Catch-22 arranges 42, 8.5 x 11 depictions of war's effect on human beings. Lots of requisite mixed media explosions and blood here, but nothing actually shocking or wholly original, save for Rob Prideaux's installation photo of a comic wedding between Hussein and Bush on a pile of bones, Bibles and barrels of oil. Further into Pro Arts, Korean war victims get their say with Still Present Pasts, featuring at least three dozen pieces chock full of history lessons, archival photos, and film. Barefoot refugees cross icy rivers while starving kids stare at vintage cameras. Recreated American leaflets show the first examples of psy ops. (C-22 through April 23; SPP through April 16; 550 Second St., Oakland; 510-763-4361.)

Surface & Time — This cerebral, minimal show features just ten photographs and one video installation, none of which deals with very much plot or point, because narrative is evidently overrated. The fourteen-inch-square full-color glossy photos mounted in pairs come from Oakland photographer Alisa Haller, who is obsessed with the effects of photographing through residential windows. You'll see interior house glare; exterior rain distortion; glass warping; and even a little drapery as Haller plays with the concept of the lens within the lens within the lens. Meanwhile, her studio partner Heike Liss gets the big wall to herself. One hundred square feet lit by a digital projector proves that just because it moves, doesn't mean it can't be abstract art. Liss belabors the point through ten shorts lacking characters or dialogue but heavy on spooky, droning synth noises courtesy of her husband, Fred Frith. This piece should be crap, but its deep superficiality, and the presence of a comfy couch, makes it totally enthralling. (Though March 30 at 21 Grand, 416 25th St., Oakland; 21Grand.org or 510-444-7263.)

Visual Alchemy II — Beat-up telephone booths and giant squid emerge as edgy subjects for tricky print-makers in this six-artist group show highlighting the best in East Bay print shop work. The Oakland Art Gallery gives each artist lots of breathing room for some really big pieces, the best of which include works by Christine Eudoxie and Barbara Foster. Eudoxie presents a poster-size photo-real shot of a corroding public pay phone, utility pole, and wall, emphasizing the jagged chaotic shapes of uncontrolled entropy. She gets the effect not by painting, but by printing out this huge, high-resolution digital photo and then touching up the whites with acrylic to give it an ethereal pop. Meanwhile Foster hijacks the look of those boring dental receptionist office paintings of whales and sea life for a much more disturbing story. The initial appearance of large-format digital prints of murky whites penetrating deep blues and blacks hides near-invisible woodcuts of archaic octopuses and other creatures of the deep. Freud would smile at all the subconscious welling up in these shots. (Through April 22; Artists' talk April 20; 199 Kahn's Alley, Oakland; 510-637-0395)

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