"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.
"Under the Crooked Bough, We Stopped to Catch Our Breath," CCA grads Marci Washington and Alika Cooper each employ their own brand of faux-naive style to illustrate scenes from works of literary fiction. Washington's paintings of ghostly-pale figures, lonely manor houses, and eerie, disembodied hands are clearly inspired by some Gothic novel, and owe a debt to the whimsical yet macabre illustrations of Edward Gorey. Deceptively simple, their flat black backgrounds and reductive lines look unfinished and awkward, but suggest the openness and brevity of the mind's eye. Cooper's works are similarly fragmentary, but while Washington's look almost folksy, Cooper's feel more contrived, like the work of a skilled painter trying to paint poorly. Her portraits of women resemble bad copies of celebrity head shots and appear to be titled accordingly. The woman in Cybil looks like a pre-Moonlighting Cybill Shepherd, while the face in Jane 1 could be that of a young Jane Fonda. The works evoke adolescent idolatry, that ambivalent state in which it's not clear if the desired is the person you want or the person you want to be. Unfortunately for Cooper, it's well-trod ground, most notably by painter Karen Kilimnik, who has been mining teenage ardor with much more insight for years. While Washington and Cooper make pleasing paintings, they fail to push beyond a rather conventional vision of the relationship between literature and the imaginary. Through April 23 at the Receiver Gallery, 1314 Eighth Ave. (at Irving), S.F. Admission is free; call 504-7287 or visit www.receivergallery.com. (Sharon Mizota) Reviewed Feb. 22.