Scholars will admire and 6-year-olds will love the terrific exhibition that has opened the fall season at the Midendorf/Lane Gallery, 2009 Columbia Rd. NW. A garland of sweet memories -- of dollhouses and HO trains and battling toy soldiers, of churchyard creches, stage sets, and Christmas season windows -- hovers like a laurel wreath above the miniature, mysterious objects in this show.

"Tableau" is its title. Viewers sick to death of rusting steel sculptures will find here works by 21 fine sculptors -- among them Edward Kienholz, Joseph Cornell, George Segal, Ed McGowin, H. C. Westermann, Linda Swick and Russell Gillespie, a Baptist minister from Turkey Creek Hollow, N.C. -- who are not afraid to conjure goddesses and lilies, martyrs, country cabins, diamonds and black sharks.

The formalists, the good-taste cops who guard official taste, may argue that significant new sculpture ought to be abstract, non-referential, self-sufficient, big and blunt and bland. These artists disagree. They are not merely welders, but alchemists and poets. They fill their art with dreams.

Their small and static worlds contain images that echo: empty, haunted rooms, a coffin in a cabin, Venus on the waves, a songbird on a twig. They have learned more from the surrealists than they have from the cubists, and more from the circuses than they have from Cezanne.

The late Joseph Cornell, the father figure of this show, is represented here by a box containing a small ballerina who dances in a sea mist of green tulle and rhinestones. A shyly smiling sailor, doomed to die in World War II, poses, with his bride in H. C. Westermann's tableau while sharks circle around him. Russell Gillespie, a whittler, offers us a haunted farm, complete with pigs and outhouse, made of twigs and lichen. Among the most ominous and most impressive objects in this show is a windowed box by Robert Helm in which shining steel halberd is surrounded by a frame made of ebony and ivory, walnut, leather, glass.

All the tableaux here are somehow representational. These small, constricted worlds, even uninhabited, suggest the human figure. One Kienholz in this show, a piece of the work he calls "The Non-War Memorial," is a thick black volume on whose large black pages are 50,000 photographs of headless clay-filled uniforms which, like soldiers' corpses, lie rotting in the sun.

Any museum would be proud of this exhibit. It was organized by Caroline Huber, who also wrote its catalog. It closes Oct. 11.

"Idylls: Five Arcadian Artists," at the Zenith Gallery, 1441 Rhode Island Ave. NW (rear) is an unfashionable, magical, deeply touching show. For the past decade, Jay Burch, Virginia Daley, Jonathan Meader, Kristen Moeller and Stephan Minovich have -- with absolute sincerity -- been showing us a world far sweeter than our own. It is as if they've been enchanted. They believe as children do, and force us to believe as well, if only for a moment, in unicorns and woodland sprites, in turtles that can fly and foxes that can talk.

Though Meader is the only one of them who has enjoyed commercial success, none of them has wavered. Like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of 19th-century England, these five local artists have together glimpsed a kind of beauty, childish perhaps, to which they're as devoted as minimalists are to squares. No art world fad has had the slightest impact on their shared idyllic vision. When Jay Burch sees a butterfly, she can feel it glow with a pale fairy light. Daley's lovely wading seabirds somehow carry with them the quiet, timeless peace of Oriental gardens. When Moeller, my favorite among them, stares into a mirror while painting her self-portrait, she sees herself inhabiting a land in which there is no pain, no ugliness or death. There are seashells in her hair.

All of them, but particularly Minovich, whose finest works are flawless, and Meader, whose palette is limited to black and white shades of blue, are meticulous technicians. One wonders, in this show, what will happen to these artists as, just like the rest of us, they inevitably age; for enchantments, in most fairy tales, are but temporary spells. Their show closes Oct. 5.

The figurative drawing of Fred Folsom, now on view at Gallery K, 2032 P St. NW, is comparably meticulous. He, too, has a vision to which he adheres with unwavering devotion -- but there the likeness ends. Folsom's talisman is not the moon, but a dented beer can.

The women in his remarkable drawings do not sing, they howl. They wear curlers in their hair. His men are tattooed bikers, defrocked priests, assassins. When we see them smile, we know that they are grinning at the filthiest of jokes. Their linen is not clean, their ashtrays are not emptied. f

Though his crosshatched drawings are exceptionally well-made, it is far from easy to look at Folsom's art. While his women croak, while his louts cavort, you can almost feel the germs growing on your hands. This show sears. cIt closes Sept. 27.

The new paintings-on-paper of Susan Davis, now at the Hull Gallery, 3301 New Mexico Ave. NW, will astonish those who only know her work from the pages of this paper. Her colors have always been impressive. They are more subtle now than ever. And the rather cloying whimsy that once marred her paintings is now completely gone. These new works are the finest she has done.

They are still lifes done from life, in colored inks and pastel chalks, of sycamore blossoms, twigs and sun-dappled garden walls. Though her subjects are organic and her colors warm, the cylinders of columns, the straight lines of a table's edge and the circles of glass dinner plates lend these handsome paintings a touch of the severe.

Those in which small things -- a twig, a row of blossoms -- are blown up to great size are the least successful. They seem a bit occluded, and suggest the claustrophobia one might feel if one's nose were but inches from a table top. I prefer her garden scenes and windows in which the echoing reflections show. It closes Oct. 4.

"Victims, Martyrs and Gods," a major work by Washington's Leslie Kuter, is on view on the ground floor of the W.P.A., 1227 G St. NW. "Is it," Kuter wonders, "possible or right to 'beautify' victims of torture . . . as old painters did Jesus?" The answer this work suggests is a troubled yes.

She "paints" with bits of colored cloth; her technique is that of the hooked rug; her images are drawn from the history of art, from Rubens and Mantegna, and from the horrors of the news. She shows us, once again, the living skeletons of Auschwitz, a monk consumed by flames, James Meredith shot down, soldiers with machine guns, and the victims of Mai Lai. To confront these things again is to feel the flaring of an ache that time cannot relieve.

Yet something has transformed these victims and these martyrs. They seem to dance upon the wall, and, in dancing, to be somehow cleansed and resurrected. This picture of the terrible is a form of prayer. Kuter's art is like no one else's. Her show should be seen. It closes Oct. 4.