Our critics weigh in on local exhibits

"The Elegant Gathering: The Yeh Family Collection"; and "From the Fire: Contemporary Korean Ceramics." Two new exhibitions take bygone practices and conclude that the artistic lettering of China and the meticulous clay work of Korea are not as remote as they may first appear. "The Elegant Gathering" comprises 80 paintings and calligraphed items collected over three generations by the Yeh family, a Cantonese clan of imperial bureaucrats, national ambassadors, and college professors who represented the cultural illuminati of 20th-century China. The family's practice of yaji, or "elegant gatherings," at which rich people talked art and literature and engaged in some substantial commerce, is reflected in the delicate scrolls of masters like Mi Fu, Fu Shan, and Zhang Daqian. "From the Fire" also mixes up time-honored traditions with new ideas, presenting more than a hundred pieces by contemporary artists. The works of Hwang Jong Koo take traditional Korean celadon ware and juxtapose it against streamlined contemporary designs. In contrast, Hae Sin Ro's colored clay baubles have the subtle geometry of mass-produced techno art. Kim Jin Kyoung finds a happy medium between old and new with expressive pieces like Netting Clay I, a blouse made of porcelain shards and wire that suggests the organic and feminine nature of the medium. "From the Fire" continues through May 21 and "The Elegant Gathering" through Sept. 17 at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin (at McAllister), S.F. Admission is free-$10; call 581-3500 or visit www.asianart.org. (Nirmala Nataraj) Reviewed March 22.

"Hank Willis Thomas." Cucci: It's Time for Jungle Fever #1 is a photograph of a massive black arm sporting a large gold watch and wrapped around a smooth white belly. The contrast between black and white skin makes a striking composition, but the image's appeal is more than aesthetic; it crackles with racial and sexual transgression. Hank Willis Thomas draws attention to familiar racial tropes — in this case, passive white womanhood overcome by virile black male sexuality — by photographing commercial ads that feature African-Americans and then retouching them to remove the text and logos. Freed from their original context, the images speak for themselves, and the tales they tell about media representation of black people are strikingly (but not surprisingly) retrograde. A close-up of a grin with full lips and shiny white teeth conjures Sambo, while the image of a man in shades, fedora, and a wide-collared tux recalls a blaxploitation-era pimp. In the self-titled show's only three-dimensional piece, Ode to the C.M.B. (Cash Money Brothers), Thomas riffs on the bling ubiquitous in hip-hop circles with a gold pendant showing the abolitionist image of a kneeling slave above the caption 'Am I not a man and a brother?' The question takes on new meaning in light of present-day slang, but the ironic coup de grâce is the huge diamond perched atop the slave's raised, pleading hands. From leg chains to gold chains, media images of black people have come a long way, but Thomas reminds us that little has changed. Through April 8 at Lisa Dent Gallery, 660 Mission (between Second and Third sts.), S.F. Admission is free; call 975-0860 or visit www.lisadent.com. (Sharon Mizota) Reviewed March 29.

"Jack London and the Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906." As the centennial of the 1906 earthquake fast approaches (April 18 is the exact date), myriad commemorations are set to deluge us with pictures of buckled streets, ruined buildings, and survivors trundling their things in wheelbarrows. This show is no exception, but as curated by Philip L. Fradkin for the California Historical Society, it's a definitive, surprising look at what happened. Peering through the lens of a well-known author offers a familiarity other exhibitions won't have, and London's wife's diary, contemporary paper ephemera, and scenes from around Northern California are unique to this show: Fort Bragg demolished, Santa Rosa as piles of bricks, and flattened shacks in Willits are images you're unlikely to see elsewhere. And what can we learn from all this — at least those of us who don't wish to simply gawk like terror tourists? Keep your eyes open and you'll discover interesting bits of history. For example, the Ocean Shore Track railway was buried under a particularly dramatic landslide, but who even knew there was an Ocean Shore Track? Through June 10 at the California Historical Society, 678 Mission (at Third Street), S.F. Admission is free-$3; call 357-1848 or visit www.californiahistoricalsociety.org. (Hiya Swanhuyser) Reviewed March 22.

"Selected Works: Paintings by Leo Valledor (1936-1989)." In the 1970s, Leo Valledor was a prominent Bay Area painter who had solo exhibitions at SFMOMA and the de Young, but since his death in 1989, the Filipino-American artist has received little public attention. This selection of refined yet ebullient abstractions from the '80s makes that neglect hard to understand. At a time when local art was still marked by the gestural fury of abstract expressionism, Valledor was the consummate minimalist. His paintings are little more than hard-edged areas of flat color on board or canvas, but he worked within these stylistic limits to evoke the energy of jazz and playfully skew our perceptions of space. The Bridge (for Sonny Rollins) is a composition of rectangles and trapezoids in black, orange, and blue whose angles suggest an ascending three-dimensional space, even as its colors vibrate in abstract syncopation. A painting on board cut in an angled surfboard shape, Coming/Going is a two-tone work that subtly flickers between a flat outline and a three-dimensional tube. Valledor was a master of color, making even muted hues like pistachio and plum feel vibrant and necessary. With dreamy, jazz-inspired titles like NuVu, Cubibop, and Wholagin, Valledor's paintings inject a potentially dry, academic style with personality and sly humor. Through April 8 at Togonon Gallery, 77 Geary (at Grant), S.F. Admission is free; call 398-5572 or visit www.togonongallery.com. (Sharon Mizota) Reviewed March 29.

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