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Pick a piece of art / BY COLIN DABKOWSKI - News Arts Critic

For reasons both practical and ridiculous, many of us are intimidated by the prospect of buying art. For some, it seems like the province of the uber-rich or the impossibly effete. For others who are simply more inured to purchasing mass-produced products in mall-like settings, it simply presents an unfamiliar shopping experience.

And then, of course, there is the matter of personal taste. To you, that strange sculpture made of shellacked tree bark and used tissues may be a thing of unspeakable beauty; to your giftee, it might inspire utter horror and an instant donation to Amvets, where it will probably languish for all eternity.

But for last-minute gift-buyers seeking to avoid the frenzy of the mall or the tedium of Amazon.com, there's no reason to fear. And there's plenty of opportunity during the nine shopping days that remain before Christmas. Here are a few suggestions:

ZGM Fine Arts (1048 Elmwood Ave.; 228-1855) offers its "West Side Bazaar," featuring products by artisans hailing from Peru, Rwanda, South Sudan, Indonesia and Nepal, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights through Dec. 30.

Indigo Art (74 Allen St.; 984-9572) hosts its small works invitational, featuring artworks by members of the Buffalo Society of Artists, through Jan. 14.

Next Friday, the Tri-Main Center (2495 Main St.) hosts its monthly "Fourth Fridays" event, during which there is sure to be a surfeit of art for sale, including the Impact Artist Gallery's holiday invitational.

Another fine place to browse for affordable holiday work is Black Rock's popular 464 Gallery (464 Amherst St.; 983-2112).

Work by local artists and others is also well-represented at Niagara Falls' Holiday Market, where 464 Gallery (with work by Chuck Tingley, Elizabeth Leader, Viktoria Ciostek and many others), photographer Chuck Alaimo, Otaka Glass and L&J Creations, among plenty of others under the Etsy.com umbrella, will offer their wares to the gift-seeking public.

Maybe you're not ready to dive full-on into the wild world of holiday art procurement. That's why prints were invented. And there are plenty on offer at area museums (always a great place to start if you're shopping for the creatively minded):
Don't miss the Last Minute Panic Holiday Marketplace in the Western New York Book Arts Center (468 Washington St.) tonight from 4 to 8 p.m. and Saturday from 12 to 6 p.m., featuring work by more than a dozen local artists.

The Burchfield Penney Art Center's gift shop (1300 Elmwood Ave.), which sells Charles Burchfield prints galore, is also running daily 15 percent discounts on certain items through Christmas eve, including books (Saturday), Burchfield prints and posters (Sunday), wood and glass (Thursday) and any single item next Friday and Dec. 24.

At the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (1285 Elmwood Ave.) gift shop, all manner of poster-sized prints of the gallery's favorite works are available, from Giacomo Balla's "Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash" ($30) to Andy Warhol's famous Campbell's Soup cans (on sale for $15). As an added bonus, Albright-Knox members get 10 percent off and the shop offers free gift wrapping.

The Castellani Art Museum gift shop at Niagara University runs its annual holiday special through Thursday, with the whole shop marked down anywhere from 20 to 40 percent.

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Making a personal statement - By Jeff Simon - ARTS EDITOR

It's something we all know: Gifts aren't just gifts. They're personal statements. They tell the recipients what the givers think of them. Or wish they did. Or hope the recipient will think they do.

So you want to make an impression on others at holiday time? And you don't have a lot of free time to figure out how to do it? My suggestions to you are these:

Big and glorious box sets of discs: Already reviewed in The News are some good ones, some great ones and one that is stupendous and probably historic.

The stupendous and historic one is the Dave Brubeck Quartet's "Columbia Studio Albums 1955-1966" (Columbia/Legacy). It's one of the great jazz box sets of the year from a musician who, at 91, has suffered so many changes in esteem that he's almost had four different careers. He is, at the moment, on a pure upswing largely for this music.

Indisputably great to be sure is Brad Mehldau's seven-disc box "The Art of the Trio -- Recordings 1996-2001" (Nonesuch). Intermittently great, to be sure, are Etta James' singular four-disc all-label "Heart and Soul: A Retrospective" (Hip-O/Universal), the first James anthology to draw from all labels and all eras, and Nina Simone's nine-disc "Complete RCA Albums Collection" (RCA/Legacy) from the unique and influential singer's final period.

Those are box sets to make an impression, that's for sure. No one will be confused about your devotion. But for anyone who is a lover of the songs (and/or poems or novel) of Leonard Cohen, you couldn't do better than "Leonard Cohen: The Complete Columbia Albums Collection" on 18 discs (Columbia/Legacy). His voice is still sepulchral, his melodies dogged and the arrangements often border on camp, but it's a truly great box set of great music that deserves familiarity as a whole.

Books offer intellectual respect and more: When you offer Roz Chast's "What I Hate From A to Z" (Bloomsbury, 64 pages, $15) as a December holiday obeisance, your message is that you think the recipient has a sense of humor sophisticated enough to appreciate a Chast drawing of a crazed dog with sharp teeth ("his bark is worse than his bite!" says his male owner; "He LOVES people!" says the other) with this explanation of why Chast hates rabies: "My rabies fear started with 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' the same way my appendicitis fear started with 'Madeline' and my brain tumor fear started with 'Death Be Not Proud.' On an ideal planet, children's books wouldn't be censored for references to sex, but for illness."

Robert Hughes' tremendous "Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal History" (Knopf, 499 pages, $35) is one the great seasonal books as well as continued proof that some of the greatest of all living writers are, in fact, critics. (Art critic Hughes on the subject of the era in which Caravaggio came along: "Much of it was as fatuous as the stuff that would come to be praised as 'postmodernism' there [and in New York] four centuries later: pedantic, clever-clever, garrulous and full of weightless quotation.")

Car people are a species all to themselves: Get them "Built for Adventure: The Classic Automobiles of Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt" (Putnam, 240 pages, $50) in which the best-selling thriller writer shows his collection of vintage cars suitable for a thriller series hero. Whatever his books may be, his 1933 Lincoln KB Series V-12 Limousine -- among other chariots of the gods -- is sublime.

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A music lover's feast / By JEFF MIERS - News Pops Music Critic

Far be it from me to encourage you to indulge in blatant consumerism in honor of the winter solstice, but let's face it -- this is the time of year when the music junkie feels justified in spending the big bucks on the glittering prizes being offered in a not-so-coincidental manner.

That usually means box sets, which are rapidly becoming the must-have item on the audiophile's wish list. Let the rest of the world indulge in the $25 iTunes download gift card -- the music freak among your family or friends (God forbid you actually married one of these creatures!) is much more interested in, say, the Rolling Stones and Beach Boys newly released deluxe box sets.

Here are a few particularly tasty treats that would certainly brighten the music lover's holiday season, and a book recommendation as well, to remind them of the music of the spheres. Most of them are far from inexpensive, but ... 'tis the season!

Rush, "Sector 1" plus "Sector 2" and "Sector 3" (Mercury, $53.95 each five-disc set). Finally, the ultimate versions of 15 Rush albums receive their ultimate remastering, providing the perfect gift for the "Rush geek" on your shopping list. Each box includes five remastered titles, with one DVD Audio surround sound mix included.

"Sector 1" contains the band's first five releases, with a surround sound version of "Fly By Night" included. "Sector 2" starts with "A Farewell to Kings," and ends with "Exit... Stage Left," and includes the surround-sound rendition of "A Farewell to Kings." "Sector 3" commences with the surround-sound "Signals" and runs through the live set "A Show of Hands." Each limited edition set boasts its own book of photos, lyrics and album credits. A must-have for prog-rock lovers.

Opeth, "Heritage" Deluxe Box Set (Roadrunner, $298.99). One of the most delightfully unexpected releases of the year finds the one-time death-metal band all but abandoning its past in favor of a transcendent blend of melody, harmony, subtlety and power. Leader Mikael Akerfeldt teamed with producer Steven Wilson to craft an album that represents a major step forward for heavy rock music.

The deluxe version -- which is a limited-edition run, but can still be found through Amazon.com -- includes a double-vinyl set, gatefold jacket housing a CD and DVD of Wilson's 5.1 surround-sound mix, a "Making of Heritage" documentary, a lithograph of the album art, and an album-sized 16-page booklet. Expensive, but gorgeous.

"Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World," by His Holiness the Dalai Lama (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 208 pages, $24). A beautiful meditation on the idea that one need not fully embrace any specific religious tradition in order to lead a life aimed at spiritual fulfillment. The Dalai Lama writes of a "third way" -- a personal code of ethics that might lead to a global community based upon mutual respect. The book offers a profoundly healthy world view. One we might all do well to consider.