Many artists are looking hard at the world around them these days, some with poetic detachment, others with impassioned rage. The broad range of these artistic statements can be sampled in several telling shows now on view in local galleries.

Documenting the helplessness and frustration of the urban poor is a complex assignment for a painter who is not a social realist, but that is the task which Sylvia Snowden, along with many other black artists, has undertaken in recent years.

In a large cycle of paintings entitled "M Street," now on view both at Howard University Gallery of Art and at Zenith Gallery, 1441 Rhode Island Ave. NW, she has sought specifically to express the agony of displacement, poverty and neglect which afflicts the people in her downtown Washington neighborhood at Fifth and M Streets NW, now in the process of "renovation."

Each painting is, in fact, meant to be a portrait of a specific person, and each in named in the title, as in "M Street: Barbara Pregnant." But Snowden has chosen to work in an abstract expressionist style, laying on thick strokes of paint in the manner of de Kooning, or more specifically Dubuffet. And in her hands the dark swirls of paint often seem to dissolve into pure abstraction.

That was clearly not the artist's intent, and it is here that the paintings are flawed. For though the viewer can empathize with the impassioned brushstrokes, the lack of definition of the image leaves the viewer with no specific subject matter to identify with, and, in fact, frustrated in the attempt to find it.

It will be interesting to see if and how this able painter resolves the difficult problem she has set for herself. The Zenith show continues through March 18, with the Howard show continuing to March 26.

A very different environment and quiet calm envelop the 21 photographers now showing at the Washington Women's Arts Center, 1821 Q St. NW. Entitled "Private Spaces," the exhibition is the result of a year-long exploration of that theme by the center's photography group. It reaffirms the recent impression that the center's exhibitions keep getting better all the time. It also suggests that the participants do not live in Snowden's neighborhood.

"Nature has become a source of spititual renewal," says Carold Clem of the reverential and very beautiful landscapes which constitute her "Private Space."

"A cozy corner in the kitchen becomes a place for nourishment of body and spirit, a retreat, a place to think and dream. That's my private space," says Joan Wexler of her tranquil domestic still lifes.

Julie Boddy's "private space" is the view past a pair of sandy feet aimed at the ocean; for Krystyna Edmondson, who contemplates a 16-year-old daughter combing her hair, home is where she feels "safe enough to take off the mask."

The show also has its experimental aspects, but it is loving, intimist vews of rather comfortable everyday experience that prevail. An ambitious if uneven series of photographs entitled "Mirrors" by Gail S. Rebhan is impressive. The show continues through March 17.

Marie Ringwald is showing new sculpture and drawing at Gallery 10, 1519 Connecticut Ave. NW, all united under the title "Nighttime Windows/Daytime Windows." In one darkened gallery, she presents three spotlit pieces, the most successful of which is "White House Front," a recreation, in somewhat reduced scale, of part of a facade of a white house, latticework and all, which has a considerable presence.

In the second gallery, a "daytime window" -- an actual construction of a window with screens, shades and painted wallpaper, is seen from the inside looking out. This piece comes off more as a good decorating idea than as sculpture. This is not Ringwarld's best show to date. Through March 24.

Washington Project for the Arts, 1227 G St. NW, has an eye-opener by "Displaced Cuban Photographers," WPA's first bilingual effort. Focusing on the varied work being done by photographers who were forced to -- or chose to -- leave Cuba for Miami, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington, the show was originally organized for the Camerawork Gallery in San Francisco by WPA's assistant director, Al Nodal.

There are a few straight photojournalists in the group, and a few who experiment with multiple exposures and collage. The majority, however, seem to be working in the wake of the same photographers who dominate much current American photography -- Lee Friedlander, who looks starkly at city life, and Paul Caponigro who contemplates rocks and natural forms close up.

But there is also evidence throughout of a distinctly surrealistic disposition and a tendency to see in cities like Miami something very different from what appears in the travel ads. In a piece called "Sainthouse Promenade," for example, Juan Rene Lezano and Cesar Trasobares have documented the many shrines which have been set up in the back yards of Cuban refugees in Miami. Ed del Valle and Mirta Gomez, two of the best photographers in the show, have extracted something tantalizing but ominous as they traversed the continent from Miami to California.

Washingtonian Roberto Machado, now 74, is the only photographer whose work deals with pre-Revolutionary Cuba, though the lore persists in the delightful work of Maria A. Gonzalez, born in Germany and now a Los Angeles artist who draws and paints upon her photographic images, transforming them into photofantasies with childlike calligraphy.

If you, like the folks in New Orleans, missed the Mardi Gras this year, a show in the lobby of the Wardman Tower of the Sheraton Park Hotel may lend some satisfaction. Fams of Grandma Moses will also find much to admire in this group of naive folk art from Louisiana by handicapped artists, benefiting the "Louisiana Art Outreach: Arts for the Handicapped" program. Through April 6.

Speaking of art and the handicapped, the Mickelson Gallery, 707 G St. NW, has just opened an exhibition of semiabstract bronze sculpture by Barcelona-born artist Medina-Campeny which did not arrive in time to be reviewed here, but is mentioned because the artist encourages groups of blind visitors to come and "see" his work with their hands, a rare opportunity in a city full of "don't touch" exhibitions. The exhibition continues through March 26.