The Corcoran Gallery of Art once upon a time kept us steadily in touch with what was new in art. Now, aided by Ned Rifkin, those days may be returning. Rifkin, 36, the gallery's new curator of contemporary art, is the man responsible for "SPECTRUM," an open-ended series of small, thematic group shows, the first of which -- on modern attitudes toward landscape -- goes on view today.

"SPECTRUM: Natural Settings" is thought-provoking, varied, entertaining and good-looking. The Corcoran is famous for its Bierstadts, Coles and Churches, for its meticulous, dramatic, 19th-century views of cataracts and mountains, meadows, forests, seas. Rifkin, most appropriately, has built his first exhibit on what's already there.

The seven artists he has chosen -- painters and ceramicists, photographers and sculptors, city dwellers most of them -- have pushed that old tradition in a variety of ways. Some have driven it toward fiction. Some have turned it into theater. One, the most conservative, Julie Bozzi of Fort Worth, who paints out in the open, makes small oils of west Texas whose clinical detachment and attention to the seen might have pleased John Ruskin. Others find in landscape the stuff of heady dreams.

Washington's Jim Sanborn treads all these roads at once. "Striking Stones Under the Thunder," his sculptural installation, is made of light and shadow, of lodestone, slate and sandstone. It looks both raw and elegant, new as well as timeless. The thunderbolt of Zeus, and the Thunderbird still worshiped by the Indians of the West, are among the forces it evokes. Part portal and part shrine, Sanborn's installation is operatic as a Bierstadt. It is the single most impressive object in the show.

April Gornik's seascape -- like the romantic moonlit landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich and Church's haunted icebergs -- feels theatrical and fictional. A brilliant orange cloud, pierced to show the blue beyond, lends its orange hue to an island-dotted sea. Gornik's scale is mysterious. Is that island huge or tiny? There is no way of knowing. One does not see such things in nature. Her summarizing brushwork is nothing to write home about, but the seascape she's imagined lingers in the mind.

Cheryl Laemmle's "Forest" feels imaginary, too. The 19th-century painters, and the audiences they served, could distinguish oaks from larches, but Laemmle is content with fairy tale trees. The 76 she's painted (on cutout sheets of masonite) have been mounted individually on the gallery's white wall. The foreground trees are large, the ones above are smaller, and all of them cast shadows so that we tend to read the whiteness of the wall as a smooth snow-covered hill. Halfway up the hill, sheltered in the woods, is a small house built of stones. Hansel and Gretel would know the place at once.

Mike Kelley's little country house, cartooned on a 4-inch-by-4-inch square of plain white paper, is even more mysterious. It is not the house that stops us, but the rays of force, or thought, that flowing from its edges, looming and expanding, gobble up the wall. Kelley, who has based something vast on something tiny, sees that "formal bumping up in scale" and the movement thus implied as "an analogy of memory." The landscape he has portrayed is a landscape of the mind.

That sense of landscape as the stuff of remembering or dreaming is made explicit bluntly by the glazed ceramic sculptures of Michael Lucero included in the show. Lucero sculptures heads on whose surfaces he paints mountain ranges, oceans, trees and suns and butterflies. He is aiming for the magical, but he somehow misses. There is something awkward, something bumpy, in his painting and his sculpture, and the magic somehow dies.

Jan Staller's photographs are wittier. His "Mont Sainte Victoire" is not Ce'zanne's beloved mountain, but a heap of rock salt near a highway in New Jersey. Between the broken sandstone rocks in his "Badlands, N.J.," one sees the Empire State Building rising in the distance. The bilious colors of his forest scene take their eerie weirdness from the mercury vapor lamp that illuminates the trees. A wild 19th-century vision and a harsher modern truth collide nicely in his photographs.

Kelley's wall-sized drawing makes us think of Albers' squares, Gornik hints at Clyfford Still, Laemmle at Walt Disney. Memories of other, older works of art, and not only of the natural, nibble at the innocence of the landscapes in this show.

Rifkin's second "SPECTRUM" will focus on the figure. His third will deal with language. His initial exhibition, which is open to the public free, is a promising beginning. It closes March 2.