If the holidays have you yearning for a temporary escape from your dysfunctional family, you can always go to City Hall. "Dysfunctional Furniture," a juried exhibition at Art in City Hall, will make you feel right at home, minus the multiple trying personalities. As a matter of fact, it's uncanny how many of the works by the show's 24 artists suggest the absence of people.

As I walked into the gallery proper, in Room 116 on City Hall's ground floor (the exhibition continues in the second-floor hallway of the building's northeast corner), my eyes were immediately drawn to Laura Frazure's peculiarly lovely and off-putting "Beauty is only a promise of happiness" - Stendhal, a work that resembles a cross between a chaise longue and a gigantic sea horse completely covered in platinum-blond synthetic hair. It has no face, like the Addams Family's Cousin Itt, and is not supposed to be sat on. As if.

Nearby, another mesmerizing and slightly terrifying piece beckons. It's Deanna McLaughlin's Homelessness vs. Hedonism, a found, dilapidated steel shopping cart that McLaughlin has woven with numerous worn leather belts as if to hold the cart together. The "shop till you drop" mentality that McLaughlin wanted to conjure and contrast with the condition of homelessness is not made obvious by this work - the shopping cart looks more like a wheelchair - but it's compelling and disturbing nevertheless. You can almost see the person who might be seated in such a chair.

The subtler works in this show are similarly disquieting.

Matthew Alden Price's Line Drawing II is a white melamine shelf on which he has balanced stacks of pale ceramic cups and saucers in rows, totem-style; he also has attached them, right-side up, to the bottom of the shelf, so it appears the cups and saucers have gone right through the shelf. The piece appears to be a metaphor for family members of the past. (In his artist's statement, Price said he had been influenced by his family's Maine cottage and its contents, made by several generations of family members.)

At first, Michael Brolly's carved wood desk and chair, Pedagogical Starveling, look so generically attractive you wonder what they're doing in this company. On closer inspection, you see that he has ingeniously sanded down parts of his furniture to paper thinness, giving the impression they were worn down by human use over many years.

The works on the second floor allude to people, too, with the same ambivalence. Lydia Hunn's painted wood sculpture, Apollinaire Renamed, looks like the two ends of a bed frame positioned together - with no room for a person between them - and also like the front of a jail. And yet the bright colors that Hunn painted the rungs of the "headboard" and "footboard" makes them resemble enormous birthday candles. A child's nightmare? Hunn's sculpture makes me think of Louise Bourgeois and Apollinaire.

Nothing says "annoying people" and "rampant consumerism" better than Trash Can Potato, Carlos Avendanos' color photograph of a worn couch perched precariously on a city trash can. At the same time, you can be grateful you're not living in the house behind it.

Albert LeCoff and Jack Larimore were the jurors for "Dysfunctional Furniture"; the show also includes works by Gretchen Altabef, Charna Eisner, Hannah Fink, Kay Healy, Tara Inman-Bellafatto, Henry Laustau, Ife Nii Owoo, Michelle Post, Leo Razzi, Maria Schneider, Adam Shuman, Herbert Simon, William Skrobut, Holly E. Smith, Chris Todd, Michael Wiley, and Burnell Yow!

Art Gallery in City Hall, Room 116 and northeast second floor, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays (closed holidays). 215-686-9912 or www.phila.gov/artincityhall. Through Feb. 25.

Unmatched set

The two New York painters who have solo shows at Gross McCleaf Gallery work in entirely different modes.

Alison Berry paints diagrammatic images of imaginary cities and landscapes populated with animals and symbols. The Mayan civilization comes to mind, but so do medieval England and prehistoric America. Her fastidious style of painting borrows from illuminated manuscripts, icon painting, and ancient maps. These paintings are surprisingly large in relation to their small, delicate imagery, and their scale enhances the sense of utter absorption they project.

Maya Brym's paintings capture glimpses of events that may have been ordinary but, as isolated by the artist, are given a fantastical quality. In fact, Brym's images of birds, flowers, still life, and tropical landscapes are so vividly colored and sinuous that they seem to have been inspired by animated films.

Gross McCleaf Gallery, 127 S. 16th St., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. 215-665-8138 or www.grossmccleaf.com. Through Dec. 30.