Sponges @ Solvent Space

As a stand-alone installation, Hope Ginsburg's multisensory transformation of VCU's raw exhibition space at Plant Zero into "Spongespace" may not sustain a viewer's interest for long. A large mural by Leah Beeferman (background) and sound by Stephen Vitiello announce that something is up, but not until multidisciplinary workshops led by visiting experts (and open to the public) begin will the magic of "Spongespace" materialize. The show at Solvent Space at the Plant Zero Art Center runs through Feb. 23. 0 E. Fourth St. Call 828-1696 or visit for workshop details and advance registration.

Abstracts @ Ginger Levit

The small quarters of one of Main Street's newest gallery additions, Ginger Levit Atelier, contains abstract paintings by local artist Michael O'Neal and watercolors by Culpeper artist Carol Baliles in separate rooms. O'Neal weaves bands of brilliant color into complex patterns resembling ethnic textiles and creates optical illusions by introducing elliptical shapes that interrupt his patterns. A souped-up version of Bauhaus painting, O'Neal's work pushes paint plasticity in many compositions that eventually wear thin.

Baliles' ambitious watercolors, like "Redland Trees and Rocks," above, visually dissect landscapes and interiors into mosaiclike patterns while preserving the likeness of her subject matter. Apparently influenced by Impressionist Maurice Prendergast, Baliles expertly manages her medium to avoid watery pools and color bleeding so common in watercolor. Her saturated paint vibrantly interprets form, shadow and light and, despite the detraction of horrendous framing, presents a fresh and exotic take on the artist's visual surroundings. Through March 31 at Ginger Levit Atelier. 1607 W. Main St. (above Red Door Gallery). 740-1471.

Saitama Teacher Sakata-sensei

Intercontinental Photos @ VMFA

In "Ichi-o Ichi-e: Sister Cities, East and West: Photographs by Eric Norbom," black-and-white gelatin-silver prints of unremarkable high-school scenes subtly compare the academic lives of students and teachers in Richmond and Japan during a 2003 cultural exchange. Norbom, following representatives from Clover Hill High School to Municipal Urawa High School in Richmond's sister city of Saitama, Japan, and later shooting their Japanese counterparts as they visited Clover Hill, captures scenes such as science teachers against backdrops of chalkboards and lab equipment and groups of students in gym class. Void of graffiti and tattoos, the locations and faces project a sweetness, as if from another era. Paired East/West images of like subjects create a quiet series of keen observation. "Ichi-o Ichi-e" ("This Singular Moment in Time") runs through March 16 at VMFA's Pauley Center. 200 N. Boulevard. 340-1400.

Bionic Furniture @ Anderson

Canadian Gord Peteran bases the form and construction of his eccentric sculpture on conventional furniture. But because he prefers furniture's metaphorical possibilities to the functional ones, "Gord Peteran: Furniture Meets Its Maker" is made up of objects that never quite fulfill the requirements of those who need to sit. Peteran employs his considerable skill in fine wood and metal work to help viewers associate personal memory and body awareness with archetypal objects such as tables and chairs. To compensate for a missing leg in "Study Station," above, he adds an elaborately crafted brass peg leg/brace to a misshapen wooden chair. Peteran designs the complicated brass fitting to conceptually provide more than mechanical support -- it's like a fine-tuned instrument of bioengineering. With that gesture Peteran both personifies the chair and performs an act of mercy on its behalf. Humorous, poignant and enigmatic, Peteran's unique realm combines fine craft and expressionism with conceptual underpinnings.

The five internationally known artists in "Familiar Faces," all of whom work with textiles, produce images of the human face in unexpected media. Devorah Sperber creates large interpretations of "Mona Lisa" and Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein with grids of hundreds of thread spools. Each interpretation works as a low-tech pixilation that visually synthesizes when the viewer looks at the image through a small acrylic orb (an elegant substitute for a video screen) installed in front of each grid. Sonya Clark, curator and chair of VCU's craft/material studies department, gathers objects that, like Sperber's optical puzzles, blaze technical trails while offering little to chew on in terms of content. Both Anderson Gallery exhibitions run through March 2. 907 1/2 Franklin St. 828-1522.

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