The big daddy of Washington's artist-run (non-commercial) art galleries is the Washington Project for the Arts which after nearly five years continues to give new artists a place to show and exposure to the best new art from elsewhere.

At the moment WPA, 1228 G. St. NW, is doing it all, doing it well, and doing it on a shoestring. Three good shows, plus Alice Aycock's outdoor site sculpture-in-progress at the corner of 12th and G (replacing the big cowboy boots) currently made a visit to this a one-stop art scene well worthwhile. Their unique bookshop full of artist-made books could also solve that last-minute gift problem for any art lover.

The featured artist downstairs at WPA is New York photographer James Collins, who makes large (sometimes mural-sized), brightly colored compositions that serve as evocative backdrops for invented narrative situations.

For instance, in a series called "Domestic Dialogues," Collins photographed several variations on the same theme: his head (or the shadow of his head) communicating silently with the distant head of a woman (always a different one) across a richly colored field of carefully composed domestic objects -- a cup, a pot of flowers, a plant. It is a provocative, highly original show that fails only when Collins abandons his camera for paint.

But it is Washington's Linda Swick, a relative newcomer to the art scene here, who steals the show upstairs. In a highly personal vernacular that crosses a benign surrealism with Florida and Texas funk, she has produced a prodigious array of drawings -- everything from an elongated cowboy dwarfing skyscrapers to Mona Lisa in the Painted Desert.

She has also made some funny but baffling wall-hung boxes that enclose strange tableaux of painted clay, one entitled "The Resuturing of the Red Sea."

But it is her Samaras-like table and chairs covered with real Spanish moss (and painted blue) that are most likely to stick in the mind, along with "Home Sweet Home," a full-size living room suite. With a coffee table made of coffee beans and a sofa made of wood chips and glue, it looks like chocolate chips and peanut butter, but everything Swick makes is full of visual double entendre.

Swick showed at Frasers Stable Gallery last year, but this is her first major show -- and it is unforgettable.

Also upstairs, Washington sculptor Tad Wanveer is showing an installation piece called "Beating a Wooden Fish," which consists of a poem and test on the wall written by Diane Ward, garbled sound from two speakers, and a handsomely executed wooden structure that looks like part of a stage set. Unfortunately, nothing happens. All of the above exhibitions close next Saturday.

At Gallery 10, 1519 Connecticut Ave. NW, a bright new talent, Richard J. Powell, is having a first major solo. He is yet another artist to keep an eye on.

A graduate of Howard University, Powell, at 26, has already had grants from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, and the National Endowment for the Arts -- not in art but in TV script writing.

His show includes etchings, drawings and collages involving handmade paper and color xerography. They are often political and powerful, notably in a suite of etchings called "Narrations," which reveals Powell's seemingly endless energy, talent and imagination. Some of the sexual imagery gets a bit sophomoric in spots, but such shortcomings seem irrelevant. The show closes today.

In brief, several galleries are winding up good December shows that should be seen. Diane Brown, 2028 P St. NW, is showing complex paper constructions incorporating paint and glitter -- some of them 11 feet long -- by the energetic William Weege. Also on view are new photographs by Gregory Conniff, including romantic backyards similar to those now on view at the Corcoran.Both shows close Jan. 5.

Word about the Shotgun Gallery, 1083 Wisconsin Ave. NW, has now seeped out: It is a gold mine of Japanese prints, old and new with emphasis on major and minor early masters. The current show features an early 20th-century woodblock artist, Hiroshi Yoshida, but there is much more -- enough to keep a browser busy for hours. Collectors on a budget will have a hard time resisting the many handsome exhibition posters available in the $25 range -- the most irresistible one featuring a Japanese woodblock print surrounded by Hebrew lettering. It announced a show of Japanese prints in Israel.

Last-minute shoppers who can't solve all their gift problems at the WPA bookshop might try Zenith Gallery, 1441 Rhode Island Ave., rear carriage house, where a "High Craft Show" features several artists working in glass, wood, fiber, ceramics and precious metals.

Photography buffs should find something suitable either in first-rate contemporary work or inexpensive vintage prints at Sander Gallery, 2604 Connecticut Ave. NW, which is also currently showing the handsome etchings and drawings of British artist Jessica Gwynne, a designer for the National Theater in London.

Intuitiveye, 641 Indiana Ave., is offering several books on photography, along with inexpensive images by lesser known photographers. Two good private photography dealers who work from their homes also offer interesting possibilities: Sandra Berler and Ann Winkelman, both in Maryland and by appointment only.

One particularly fine art book that has not had the attention it deserves is Mary Sayre Haverstock's new "American Bestiary" (Abrams, $35), full of little-known art and facts to delight any art or animal lover.