Some big names in the worlds of politics and art have been taking a closer look at themselves -- and each other -- since Rosalind Solomon's show of 40 photographs, entitled "Washington," went on view at the Corcoran Thursday night.

"That photo of LaBelle Lance says it all, doesn't it," marveled one visitor as she stared at the unflinching portrait of Mrs. Lance. "She looks so vulnerable!"

"I feel vulnerable myself, exposed, as if my feelings are out on the surface," says Solomon. "There's not much I see that I haven't felt, myself." Her profound empathy is only part of what gives these portraits such power.

Behind the faces and facades of Washington, Solomon's sensitive eye has also perceived unbounded energy, perhaps best expressed in a portrait of Sen. Jennings Randolph of West Virginia. His stance and shoulders seem to echo the vigor of the buffalo sculpture he holds. The notion of power-as-a-cage is also a recurrent theme, unforgettably rendered in two images of the White House seen through its surrounding fences. Who is inside and who is outside that cage remains ambiguous, and that ambiguity adds to the tension that pervades all of Solomon's best work.

There are other gems among the portraits, including one of artist Sam Gilliam in which his studio seems to reel around him.

Of particular interest for Washingtonians are the pre-White House images of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, taken in Plains, Ga., where Solomon began this body of work. She continued it when she moved to Washington in 1977, when her husband, Jay, took over the General Services Administration. The shift permitted her to observe subtle transformations: An early image of Mrs. Carter at her Plains sink is very different indeed from a later study showing the first lady in full command at a desk on Air Force One.

Solomon has shown often in New York and here at the Sander Gallery (2600 Connecticut Ave. NW), where another show of her work went on view last night. Combined, these exhibitions show the growing range and depth of her work, which clearly came into full flower during her stay in this city. It is fitting, indeed, that her first solo should be celebrated at the Corcoran. Both shows continue through June.

In 1934, at the age of 28, Washington artist Robert Gates was sent by the U.S. Treasury Department, Fine Arts Section, to the Virgin Islands to make watercolors that would stimulate tourism. It was one of the more delectable jobs devised to keep artists eating and working during the Depression years, and in addition to waht he did for the government, Gates made several watercolors for himself. They languished unseen in his basement for 44 years until Jack Rasmussen resurrected them for the current show in his gallery at 313 G St. NW.

These joyous, light-drenched views of St. Thomas rooftops and the children and lush flora of that tropical island are as fresh and beautiful as the day they were made, and reassert the fact that Gates, now 74 and resident in an Alexandria nursing home, still has not been sufficiently appreciated here.

Recognition, in fact, came early in Gates' career, and he received several WPA mural commissions (including one that still hangs at the Bethesda Post Office), along with a watercolor prize at the National Gallery's first -- and last -- contemporary show in 1941.

After that, although he was an influential and beloved teacher at American University for three decades, his own work experimented with current styles but never forged a distinctive new statement. Unfortunately, not only for Gates but for a whole generation of artists, it was a time when only innovation counted.

But Gates' creative juices were churning hard in the St. Thomas watercolors and in several others, also on view here, that were made in the West Virginia countryside in the late '30s and early '40s. Even then, he was well aware of current trends, including both the regionalist style of Thomas Hart Benton and the modernist semi-abstractions of Marin. Despite solid abstract underpinnings in his work, however, it was the passionate expression of the light, the spirit of the day, the joy of life, that he really sought to convey. He did so most splendidly in the masterpiece here, "Smith Bay, St. Thomas."

There are other works fascinating in their audacity, among them the awkward "Mist in the Valley," which seeks to emulate the atmospheric perspective used by Oriental artists, and "Garden on the Mountain," which incorporates that lesson into a captivating West Virginia farmscape. Two close-up watercolors, "Toadstools" and "Indian Pipe," cross the splendor of Winslow Homer with the freshness of contemporary watercolorists like Joseph Raffael. They were made in 1937. The show continues through May.

Diane Brown's Sculpture Space is a busy spot on Saturday afternoons, despite its location well off the beaten path at 52 O St. NW. The current show on view through May, makes the trek worthwhile.

In this small invitational, Brown has asked 20 artists (most represented by other dealers in New York, California and Washington) to send work that fits the title, "Maquettes and Small Sculpture." Among the better known names are Mark Di Suvero, Jackie Ferrara, Guy Dill and French sculptor Alain Kirili.

Other works range from funny to funky to formal, with the more interesting items falling into the first two categories. Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt's reconverted kiddies' record player -- the first thing you see (and hear) -- sports tinfoil-wrapped records that have lollipop dancers attached. The contraption actually works. Ned Smith manages to make something monumental and satisfying out of another unlikely combination -- a cement palm tree in relief against a painted fabric background.

Washington artists more than hold their own in this often better-known company. Nade Haley's maquette for her forthcoming WPA installation is impressive, and John Dickson, with a fine piece, whets the appetite for his upcoming show at the Corcoran. Ed McGowin has carried his current schemes for monumental sculpture to new and outrageous heights in a piece that proposes to combine an Egyptian relic with American farm scenes. CAPTION: Picture, Photograph of Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.) in the "Washington" exhibit; Copyright (c) 1980 Rosalind Solomon