SCULPTURE BY MICHAEL AYRTON -- Through September at M. Darling, Ltd., 3213 O St. NW. Tuesday through Saturday, 11 to 6.

The apelike figure at the end of the long gallery startles. Its fur undulates in waves. A wide-open mouth screams in soundless agony and torment.

It is "Evolution of a Minotaur," by the late Michael Ayrton, whose sculptures and related drawings are on exhibit at the M. Darling Gallery. Ayrton, a Briton, interpreted the Greek myths of Daedalus, Icarus, and the Minotaur as metaphors for life. He saw himself (and the human race) as the Minotaur: half man, half beast.

For the first 10 years of his career Ayrton was a representational painter. He didn't begin exploring Greek mythology until he met the sculptor Henry Moore in the '50s. His works are eerie voyages into the subconscious. The piece "Brain Maze" depicts a small man climbing temple steps to peer into an open skull containing a labyrinthian brain. Brain and man are separated by a smoky sheet of plexiglas, making each a reflection of the other.

The frozen tension of confrontation in the work "Man and Minotaur," is awesome and distrubing. With only the plexiglas partition to prevent a battle, the powerful hulks merge into ghostly images on a mirror-like surface as if each existed solely in the other's imagination.