Old religious art in a chic new downtown gallery?

Moses, the Virgin Mary and assorted saints may not be what visitors expect to encounter in Ramon Osuna's new space at 406 7th St. But "The Cuzco School: 17th & 18th-Century Paintings from Peru" is a show that any museum would be proud of. It is also something of a revelation.

These large, highly ornate paintings reveal a neglected corner of art history that Osuna hopes to cultivate: Spanish colonial art. On loan from an anonymous Swiss collector (is there any other kind?), the paintings are not for sale, but are meant rather to whet appetites that Osuna is prepared subsequently to satisfy.

Cuzco -- the ancient capital of the Inca empire -- was one of Spain's most important colonial centers, and became in the 16th century a major beneficiary of the competition between various religious orders to build bigger churches and fill them with more art. The many native mestizo artists who made these heartfelt paintings are now anonymous, known only as part of the Cuzco Circle. Taught both by European artists and engravings of famous paintings, their style is mestizo as well. In the most amusing iconographic translation, the native llama stands in for the camel in a nativity scene.

The paintings are winning, and the more one knows about what was going on concurrently in Flemish, Italian and Spanish art, the more charming these folksy translations become. The "Virgin of Pomata," for example, looks Gothic, but is actually a 17th-century painting that suggests that the Italian Renaissance never took place. Likewise, an 18th-century "Birth of the Virgin" combines a 15th-century Flemish compositional formula with a charmingly inept attempt at single-point perspective. The saccharine faces of the Spanish painter Murillo suggest another major influence.

This is apparently the first show of the Cuzco School to surface in Washington. A catalogue would have been helpful. The show continues through October.

Jack Rasmussen, 313 G St. NW, is showing new paintings by Marianne Laroche, a Washington artist who hasn't been heard from for the past few years. She has put the time to good use, producing a unified body of works on paper and canvas that invite and reward contemplation.

All are based on a proscenium-like format, and present within the surrounding curtains dream-like segments of unpeopled land, sea or sky, loosely -- often only suggestively -- rendered. In "L'eau de Vie," as in several other works, a segment of sea occupies center stage, as the artist lures us into pondering the lurking presences behind the lapping waves. And despite its minimal means, "Between the Night Curtain" -- a moody evocation of a starry night implied by mere drips of yellow paint on a blue ground -- is equally enveloping.

Despite some weak points, the show is of real interest. It closes Oct. 4.

Incidentally, Rasmussen is expanding his gallery to include the second floor, which more than doubles his current space. The Sept. 30 opener upstairs will be new work by artistcritic Douglas Davis, who has recently switched from video to film. The one-performance-only world premiere of his latest film, "Post Modern Times," will take place at the Biograph Theater at 6 p.m. on Sept. 30. Free tickets are available at the gallery and will be sold at the theater for $3.

Kathleen Ewing, 3020 K St. NW, has organized an exhibition of 100 photographs from the past century, subtitled: "Non-silver & Hand-made Photography." The point according to the catalogue, is to show works printed by the various methods devised before paper film and silver-prints became the dominant mode.

With the recent photo boom, many young photographers have been resurrecting these older more complicated processes -- platinum and palladium prints, carbro and gum bichromate prints -- wresting from them subtleties of light and mood that cannot be obtained in silver prints.Ewing makes the point by pairing the old and the new, as in the juxtaposition of a P. H. Emerson platinum print of the English landscape in the 1980s with a new Steve Szabo platinumm print of the Eastern Shore. Despite the century between the two images, the impulse to convey the beauty of the scene unites the two artists. The light in the Szabo image actually makes you squint.

There are other illuminating pairs and trios of work -- notable among them the irresistible images by Karl Struss, last of the Photo-Secession photographers, who, though now in his 90s, has not yet had the glory he deserves. The show closes Oct. 2.