Times Staff Writer

'If someone had stenciled the word sky on the top of a canvas and earth on the bottom, it would have qualified for this show. It's a conceptual show about the idea, the sensation and the dream of landscape," said New York critic Peter Frank of the exhibition he organized at the downtown Design Center of Los Angeles.

The assembly of 128 works by 127 Southern California artists is the centerpiece of Los Angeles Visual Arts' fourth annual weekend festival, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and Sunday.

Los Angeles Visual Arts--known as LAVA--is a coalition of 33 centrally located showcases. The group is sponsoring the weekend open house, including free guided bus tours to 26 member galleries. Visitors in search of downtown art will convene in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art's Temporary Contemporary facility, 152 N. Central Ave., to pick up maps and board buses.

One of the stops is at the Design Center, 433 S. Spring St., where riders take an elevator to the sixth floor and find themselves surrounded by Frank's selection of unconventional landscapes. A parade of color photographs of Laguna Canyon rolls by on a high-tech conveyor belt near the entrance of the gallery, unfurling an extensive project by Mark Chamberlain and Jerry Burchfield. In another room, Sam Erenberg has painted a landscape on an old Paul Whiteman phonograph record of "Lonesome in the Moonlight."

Even when a relatively ordinary scene comes into view, it turns out to have an extraordinary element--say, Hank Pitcher's painting of a woman holding up the sky, or Richard Ross' photographed pair of white lawn chairs surveying the horizon, like an old married couple. Such works as Maxwell Hendler's juxtaposition of giant telephone buttons on a forest overlay traditional, realistic nature painting with symbols of an urban society.

"One of the guiding principles in choosing pieces for the show was that they be untraditional or unexpected," Frank said in an interview at the center. "Another was that they include a whole landscape, not just a tree or a rock. Not all the work depicts California landscapes, but it all has a Southern California sensitivity provoked by being here.

"Another criterion was that the artists currently be full-time residents of Southern California. Their homes range from San Diego to Santa Barbara."

Frank, who divides his time between curating and writing, confesses a longstanding fascination with landscape. He named the show "To the Astonishing Horizon" after a brief poem by Rene Char that has haunted him since he first read it many years ago. "I feel that same sense of astonishment when I ride through California," he said.

"Any landscape is exotic" to a New Yorker, according to Frank, but he is particularly exhilarated by Southern California sights--from its beaches and oil fields to "the poignancy of suburbia."

"All those dumb little houses--or dumb big houses--plopped next to each other. There's a still atmosphere, broken by little ripples of joy or grief. People in New York often say that L.A. is one big suburb--Queens with palm trees--but in fact it is a constant shift between suburbia and city. The discontinuance of man-made structures and nature makes you aware of where you are and how quickly it can change. Reynor Banham's idea of four ecologies is very important."

Frank began to establish himself as an aficionado of art in Southern California 10 years ago and has made annual trips here ever since, "gobbling up shows and going to studios."

"New York can get awfully boring," he said. "I like discovering a whole new, exciting, self-sufficient art scene. Los Angeles art is in an extended period of transition, compared with what it was when I first came here.

"The city is a more international center now and the peculiar characteristics that once distinguished the art have been diluted. But when they do occur, they stand out more distinctively. I think there's a constant response to light here and an exciting, lively, multi-emotional sense of place. There's also a constant response to material--to processes applied to real substances, which leads to a fusion of painting and sculpture."

His perceptions of California art and landscape led Frank to propose "To the Astonishing Horizon" to LAVA organizers. Now that the idea has been realized, he has the usual curator's regrets about pieces that weren't available for the show, but he's delighted with the final product.

"I do not claim that the quality is even, or that it should be in a survey like this," he said. "The art ought only to rise above mediocrity and have excellence as a possibility. The point (of the show) is more important than the quality. And there is enough dynamite work here."

Buses will leave the Temporary Contemporary every five to 10 minutes. Nearby parking is available for $1. LAVA hot line: 680-4090.

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