SIGHTS AROUND TOWN : The Big Picture : A four-man show of oversize prints seems to have been airlifted from another time and place.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"L arge prints " is a relative term when it comes to photographic images. In the case of the current four-man show at the John Nichols Gallery in Santa Paula, "12 x 20 x 4: An Exhibit of Large Format Contact Prints," the images themselves are not large, per se. But at 12 by 20 inches, the negatives are. And with a negative-to-print ratio of 1-to-1, the resulting prints are of pristine clarity, in which every hair, branch and rocky crag are accounted for.

Large-format cameras hark back to an earlier period when large negatives produced ultra-sharp pictures, especially useful in portraits of large groups. In this show, many of the images seem to have been airlifted from another time and place.

And part of the charm of the exhibit is that the artists dwell on old roads and lost Americana--but don't venture very far from sweet home Ventura County.

Mike Lardizabal's image of a shanty general store is, in fact, a shot of the old market along California 126 outside Piru. Lardizabal's image of Arbor Falls, Calif., is the stuff of dreams, all milky cascades and landscape luster. Armed with the unsparing eye of the large-format camera, he also captures the alien beauty of Mono Lake.

Gordon Mark found a mysterious tangle of dark, twisting limbs in a grove of oaks in Los Osos. Elsewhere, Mark captures the sensuous sweep of the reclining "Claudia," in a sleek black dress with every fold laid bare.

Harrison Branch fragments scenes of dilapidated buildings and a log-covered hill, transforming the familiar into the abstract.

Marshall Sowder finds art in the desert, where junked cars all in a row take on a strange symmetry. Elsewhere, he captures the eerie presence of an abandoned house in the long light of a late afternoon. He is less successful with his composite images, where multiple prints have been grafted into a collage effect, in the manner of David Hockney's Polaroid paste-ups.

These highly detailed prints beg to be examined point-blank. Contact print work may be comparatively cumbersome by high-tech photographic standards, but the results please the eye.

On the subject of another time and place, the Hungarian mind frame--circa the early 20th Century--has landed at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and the view is good.

"Standing in the Tempest: Painters of the Hungarian Avant-Garde 1908-1930" was curated by former museum Director Richard West before he left his position and Dr. Steven Mansbach. The show deals with a stormy period in Hungarian history, as manifested in art.

For students of 20th-Century art--and particularly that fertile phase before Hitler, when "isms" were running gleefully rampant--the show is an unexpected feast. Many striking individual images and revealing trends help affix these works to the memory banks. But their primary value is as a showcase on a corner of modern art never before explored to this extent.

Expressionism, Fauvism, Constructivism, Cubism and Futurism are a few of the fleeting movements--crystallized in Germany, Paris, Italy or Russia--that grew in Hungary. The show provides an important link in the understanding of the country's role in the furious birth of modernism.

The exhibition, which includes paintings, commercial and political posters, journals and prints, has a palpable sense of artistic struggle and breakthrough. Idealism and a wide-eyed belief in the modern pervaded the culture early this century, and this art embodies a restlessness and a sense that the future was upon them.

In 1918, the Austro-Hungarian empire crumbled, and, briefly, a new revolutionary government took hold. At the time, Laszlo Kassac's journal, MA, flourished and set an example of progressive thought. By the 1930s, however, the prevailing order had begun to repress the avant-garde.

The most widely known name here is that of Laszlo Maholy-Nagy, who gained fame as part of the German Bauhaus movement in the late '20s. Here, he is represented by several "Constructions," geometric abstractions sparsely laid out.

Most of the art isn't nearly so sedate or logical. These artists found personal expression by breaking conventions and opening new territory. One of the more powerful pieces on display is Imre Szobotka's 1921 "Reclining Nude," a large painting with its subject cutting across the canvas diagonally, done in a style reminiscent of Cezanne.

In "Self-Portrait With Model," Vilmos Perrott Csaba fuses two traditional painter's subjects by putting himself in the picture alongside his nude model.

A village church spire is viewed amid futuristic swirls in Janos Kanetty's "View of Keskemet." The provincial idyll is colored with a sense of time on the march.

Sometimes, the art takes odd, irreverent approaches to time-honored religious subjects. Bela Uitz's "Iconanalysis With the Holy Trinity" is a mostly abstract image full of raked angles and rectangles in space, as if depicting the Trinity as a busy urban intersection.

"The Last Supper" by Gyula Derkovitz, features six gaunt faces marked by Cubistic planes. "The New Adam," by Sandor Bortnyik, envisions man as a dandy standing on a Victrola, swimming in a composition of cubes and rectangle.

The portrait aspect is chargedup in a way recalling Franz Marc, in Bortnyik's "Composition With 6 Figures." Exaggerated limbs fill the dense canvas, leaving no room for the eye to wander or the mind to relax.

A more folk-tinged modernism marks the paintings of Bela Kadar. His images of villagers and a still-life with chessboard are clumsy and charming. Laszlo Tihanyi's "Portrait of Tristan Tzara" offers glimpses of a figure floating in an otherwise non-representational space. It is a typical push-pull tension between the abstract and the real that typifies much of the show.

Stoking this sampling is a raw energy and a conscious distillation of various "isms" of the day. Apart from the turn-of-the-century pre-modernist works on view as a prelude to "Standing in the Tempest," the art here doesn't tread lightly. This show persuasively presents the saga of the Hungarian avant-garde as a driven, passionate outpouring, tinged with purpose and a stubborn faith in the future.

The art world is a far more jaded and patently ironic place now. Few artists want to change the world, or their audience's perception of it. That we can find inspiration in the work of seven decades ago says something about that art's lasting significance, and also something about our innately human desire to believe.

* WHERE AND WHEN

* The John Nichols Gallery, 910 E. Main St. in Santa Paula, shows "12 x 20 x 4: An Exhibit of Large Format Contact Prints," photography by Harrison Branch, Mike Lardizabal, Marshall Sowder and Gordon Mark, through April 27.

* "Standing in the Tempest: Painters of the Hungarian Avant-Garde 1908-1930," at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, through May 12.

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