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SIGHTS AROUND TOWN : In Vivid Pastel : Theodore Lukits infused his landscapes--now at the Carnegie Museum--with vibrant color.

April 04, 1991|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When you think of pastel landscapes, soft colors and lulling contours spring to mind. What you see and what you get with Theodore Lukits' pastel works are seething skies and colors vibrant enough to rattle the retina. These images, a large sampling of which are at the Carnegie Art Museum in Oxnard, are not wallflowers.

Pastels in hand, Lukits caught views of the desert, the Sierra Nevada, the Southwest and untrammeled parts of Los Angeles--in the '20s, there was plenty of untrammeled area to behold.

Strange suffusions of color--shades of pink, yellow and magenta--overwhelm the skies over gentle landscapes and spindly eucalyptus trees. Understandably, given his visual tastes, Lukits was fanatical about sunsets, the time during which the sky explodes with almost surreal color distortions. The image subtitled "Sierra Peaks at Sunset" seems almost irradiated by a bath of red: by modern standards--which the artist could not have anticipated in those pre-nuclear days--it looks like an apocalyptic, post-nuclear vision.

There is more here than meets the eye. Lukits' visions recount a time when the great California outdoors wasn't nearly so diminished by the blandishments of urban development. Nowadays, nature may rear her head and, suddenly, for instance, white snowy caps are visible in the mountains over Oxnard. But it takes a flexing of imagination to envision Southern California in its earlier, more pure state.

Although you'd never guess it looking at these images, Lukits made a fair share of his living in the portrait trade. Born in Tomesvar, Hungary, in 1897, at age 2, he came to the United States with his family. He wound up studying at the Art Institute of Chicago while doing magazine illustrations to support himself.

It was in Chicago that actress Theda Bara and others, impressed with his abilities with portraiture, urged Lukits to come out to Hollywood. Among other things, he became a portraitist to movie stars and other subjects. Lukits painted silent screen actress- dancer Mae Murray nude, at her insistence.

Also a noted teacher, Lukits founded his own art institute and taught until 1987.

The '20s were a roaring time for the young artist. In his off hours, though, Lukits took to unpopulated corners of nature, to work en plein air . To up the ante of color intensity, he made his own pastels and chose colored paper to accent a particular color scheme. He produced thousands of pastel works, many of which he and his wife donated to the Jonathan Art Foundation, the principal source for this exhibition, curated by Suzanne Bellah.

Unfortunately, information on the precise locations and years of the pieces wasn't available, and we're left to guess where many of these vistas were found. But that does leave us to speculate about the artist's natural world view, and also the beauty of the old California topography.

Unlike many pastel artists, Lukits is not an impressionist, prone to blurring lines and creating a visual wash effect. Instead, he sought to accurately dictate and then amplify the visions nature provided. You can detect the influence of the 19th-Century landscape painter J. W. Turner, also obsessed with skyward visions and unearthly sweeps of light and color, but mostly Lukits stakes his own claim in the parcel of pastel work.

Twilight is the dominant motif here. He loves the sky in transition between night and day. And his depictions amount to a portrait of natural California in her own twilight of innocence.

MUSEUM IN TRANSIT: The Conejo Valley Art Museum is one of those little museums that could. This year, it went house-hunting again. Where does the museum hang its art these days? Just hang a right at the Thrifty and another left down the walkway in the Janss Mall.

Since its inception in 1976, the museum has continued operations through various moves around Thousand Oaks. Most recently, it was in the old library building on Wilbur Road, but went homeless when the city put the building up for sale.

The future was uncertain. There were rumblings of an offer to settle into the Newbury Park library for two months out of the year. "It looked like we were out," said museum President Maria Dessornes, standing in the midst of the sizable new space last week.

To the rescue came the Janss Corp. Specifically, Ed Janss, an early supporter of the museum, rallied to the cause. Through volunteer efforts and in-kind donations, a retail space was transformed into a space suitable for framing. "We're back to Day 1," Dessornes said with a grin.

Its inaugural housewarming exhibit, "The Artist as Reporter," is composed mainly of courtroom artists' sketches, the kind we've seen routinely on the nightly news and perhaps haven't thought of aesthetically. A light, viewer-friendly show, it features the works of veteran artist-reporter Howard Brodie, David Rose and the fledgling Elizabeth Williams--once a student of the show's curator, Eva Roberts.

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