The first comprehensive survey exhibition of Symbolist, Expressionist and postwar figurative paintings from the Flemish countries opens Saturday at the Newport Harbor Art Museum and continues through Feb. 22.

Co-organized by the museum and the Ministry of the Flemish Community Art Department, "Flemish Expressions: Representational Painting in the 20th Century" contains about 140 paintings and large-scale works on paper by 24 artists.

Fifteen works by Symbolist James Ensor include "Les Masques et la Mort" (1897) and "Les Masques Scandalisees" (1883). Among Surrealist Paul Delvaux's entries is "Le Lever" (1930), while Symbolists Leon Spilliaert and Fernand Khnopff show 12 works each.

The Expressionist section is dominated by Constant Permeke and Frits Van Den Berghe, each showing 10 paintings. Seminal paintings by artists identified with the Cobra, Pop and more recent figurative movements are also in the exhibition. According to chief curator Paul Schimmel, "It is the Flemish painter's ability to find in the simplest subject complex and emotionally charged representations of the human experience. . . . Although the artists in this exhibition can be placed in the context of 20th-Century modernism . . . the unique quality of Flemish painting extends back to the genius of Van Eyck, Van der Weyden, Bosch, Brueghel and Rubens. The painters whose work has been selected for this exhibition have matured within this exceptional tradition."

In contrast, Karel Geirlandt, of the Palace of Fine Arts in Brussels, states in his catalogue essay that the Flemish--who continually struggle for the preservation of their culture and language--are "influenced by all the international artistic trends. Therefore our modern art is a kaleidoscope, reminiscent of the motley history of Western Modernism." Most of the works are on loan from museums in Belgium. Information: (714) 759-1122.

"The Erl King," a video installation by Grahame Weinbren, allows viewers to change what they are watching by touching the screen before them. The production, which uses a technology known as multiple-disc interactive video, will be shown in the lobby of the Museum of Contemporary Art's Ahmanson Auditorium Wednesday through Jan. 25.

Weinbren describes "The Erl King" as "a video landscape of imagery and music" which viewers are asked to explore. It features a cast of actors and musicians who perform a drama based on a poem by Goethe.

An art auction to benefit the Central American Refugee Center takes place today at Oranges/Sardines Gallery, 320 Omar Ave., 3:30 to 6 p.m.; works may be previewed from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Among participating artists are Robert Graham, Willy Herron, Lita Albuquerque, Leon Golub and John Valadez.

A retrospective survey of sculpture by Jene Highstein opens Saturday at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art and runs through Feb. 1.

Organized by LJMCA director Hugh Davies with curator Linda Forsha, the exhibition examines 12 years of work with 15 large-scale sculptures, seven drawings and two site-specific installations, previously seen only in Italy. An illustrated catalogue with text by Forsha and an interview with the artist accompanies the exhibition.

The New York-based artist will present a slide lecture on his work Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. in the museum's Coast Room.

Traditional needlework and costumes by 14 Hmong women from Laos will be shown at the Woman's Building today through Jan. 15. The exhibition, organized by Dixie Swift and Amy Catlin, features embroidery, batiks, appliques and oral histories.

Today's opening celebration is part of a festival day offering live music, dance, videotape screenings, craft demonstrations and Hmong foods.

A free lecture by Catlin on "Songs of the Hmong Women" will be given Jan. 14 at 7:30 p.m. at the Woman's Building.

University Museum, Cal State Long Beach, presents "Centric 24: Donald Sultan Prints: 1979-1985," Tuesday through Feb. 22. Included are 33 etchings, aquatints, lithographs, linocuts and woodcuts. Information: (213) 498-5761.

The Lannan Foundation has awarded its first program grant to New York's Museum of Modern Art, in support of the "Projects" exhibition series directed by Linda Shearer, curator in the department of painting and sculpture. The series will present a broad view of current explorations and new directions in the visual arts. Based on an exhibition series held at MOMA from 1971 to 1982, the new "Projects" series will feature recent work by young, little-known artists in both solo and small group shows.

The first show in the series opened last week with a site-specific installation by Justen Ladda, titled "Art Fashion and Religion" and consisting of a synthesis of sequential drawings, architectural structures, painted sculpture and wall painting.

Seven contemporary works in sculpture have recently been added to the sculpture garden of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

On loan from sculptor Mark di Suvero is "Spoken Fer." Michael Heizer's "Guenette Mahogany" is from New York art dealer Xavier Fourcade and an untitled bronze by Robert Therrien is on loan from Robert B. Eggleston. Also recently installed is Jonathan Borofsky's "Flying Frog With Chattering Man at 2,845,322" from the Frederick R. Weisman Collection.

From the Margo Leavin Gallery are Alan Saret's "Joys of Ovan," "Crigger Road II" by Robert Lobe and "Dropped Bra" by Tom Wesselmann.

Artists already represented in the sculpture garden include Anthony Caro, Peter Voulkos, Donald Judd, Auguste Rodin, Bruce Nauman, Michael Todd, Guy Dill, Michel Gerard and George Rickey.

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