Sherry Kasten's career as a realist painter has been atypical -- an artist's dream. After only one show at the Touchstone cooperative in 1977, she received major exposure last fall with a show at the Phillips Collection. s

"I think it all happened so fast because I was mature when I began and knew what I was doing," says Kasten, 43, who abandoned a longtime interest in art to raise a family until five years ago when she decided "to become a professional." Her show of new paintings at Baumgartner Galleries, 2016 R St. NW, suggests she made the right choice.

In the current show, Kasten is no longer producing those sometimes imperfect, if always striking paintings of the Washington Metro for which she first became known. Her current subject is her new studio in the Atlantic Building in downtown Washington, all washed by the moody light and restrained, brushy color that have become her hallmark. Kasten calls her show "Empty Rooms, Empty Places," and that's what her paintings -- exuding a sense of calm and solitude that is satisfying and enveloping -- are about. There are no people here, explains Kasten, "because I want the viewer to be a participant, not an observer."

One feels very much a participant in Kasten's world. And in the best painting here -- the artist's worktable in front of a high, arched window -- the urge to sit down and stare out the window is almost irresistible.

What distinguishes Kasten from the many other realists dealing with empty rooms is her well-formulated way of looking at things, her ability to scrim out detail in a consistent way, and her distinctive "style," unusual at such an early stage in an artist's career. The show continues through March 17.

Hayes Friedman is another late-blooming painter who, like Kasten, did not approach painting professionally until her mid-30s. She completed her MFA at American University only last year and is currently having her first solo at Haslem Gallery, 2121 P St. NW -- large canvases peopled with groups of highly simplified, weighty sculpture-like figures (sometimes nude) who seem to be playing out roles in some elusive scenario, often with allusions to classical mythology.

At first glance, the paintings recall too many other artists: the classic Picasso, Balthus, even Washington figurative painter Alan Feltus. Friedman acknowledges her admiration for all of these predecessors, but insists that the stylistic coincidence comes from shared sources in the past. "My ideas all come from memory of things seen and heard and read," explains Friedman, who also holds degrees in literature and art history. "I use no models or references to observed spaces, and work from my feelings alone."

Despite her protests, the chief problem for this inventive and gifted painter is finding her own style.And even in the two-year span covered by this show, her progress toward that goal has been remarkable. The early "Lysistrata," for example, is a silly painting filled with rubbery female forms, all curves and no substance, while "The Offering" leaves the question of how to deal with an arm wholly unresolved. What an extraordinary leap has been made between these paintings and "Two Girls Before a Window," a subtle, haunting work of great intensity, beautifully painted. Friedman's quest to unfetter herself from the past is worth watching. Her show closes today.

Throughout history, many artists have found their best subjects in the mirror. A show of self-portraits by 25 contemporary artists at Fendrick Gallery, 3059 M St. NW, suggests that this tradition is still thriving, despite distinct changes. Raoul Middleman's swashbuckling, mock-heroic self-portrait -- so close in spirit to the grand manner of Rubens, and so far from the spirit of today -- makes sly reference of those changes.

Apart from Middleman, the show is clearly of its own time, with photorealists Roger Essley, Ben Schonzeit and others presenting themselves as a camera would. Chuck Close does likewise, with clinical dissection of the photo-image his primary goal.

Others, however, seek to make deeper statements about themselves. The most riveting example is the exquisite oil self-portrait by William Beckman, whose uncanny realist landscapes are included in the Hirshhorn's current "Directions" show.Genna Watson draws herself in a highly expressive manner, while Gregory Gillespie's self-image is less intense, less distraught than in his Hirshhorn show. William Bailey's drawing of himself is too self-effacing, a disappointment. A few artists -- notably Joan Danziger and Jugo de Vegetales -- have expressed themselves through their fantasies. The loudest primal screech issues from the brush of poet-surrealist Donald Roller Wilson, who is bound to offend just about everyone. The show continues through Feb. 28.