Margarida Kendall paints surrealist fantasies that question the nature of man, nothing less. And like any good dramatist, she has, over the past few years, been developing and refining a character who could play the leading role in her meticulously painted scenarios: a chunky male nude with the head of a bird.

"He represents all mankind," says the Lisbon-born artist, explaining that her leading creature is not half-man/half-beast, but rather a man wearing an aggressive mask for survival. A study of the nature of this man/beast is at the heart of Kendall's first solo show now at Osuna Gallery, 406 Seventh St. NW.

"Ancestors," a large oil suggests man's ambiguous origins, as he stands menacingly beside the sea, surrounded by egg-like forms. Are these strange forms his ancestral remains or his descendants? The answer remains unclear, here and throughout the show.

"I have no answers, only questions," says Kendall, who knows how to play the surrealist game of ambiguity, and to higher purpose than most.

"The Survival Game," a somewhat less obscure painting, depicts several bird people taking refuge in the middle of a park, possibly Central Park, surrounded by skyscrapers. It deals with a subtheme in Kendall's work survival in the city. It also brings up the importance of her titles: "They are so important that I've thought of writing them into the paintings themselves," admits Kendall. The esthetic question of whether pictures should lean so heavily upon a title remains a major one. This is, nonetheless, provocative, thoughtful work, if not yet fully matured. The show continues through March 4.

Two years ago, abstract painter Alice Mavrogordato -- once a student of Morris Louis and Ken Noland -- had her first exhibition in years at Cramer Gallery. It was a fragmented, tentative show, suggesting that 12 years away from the easel had left the artist with her talent intact, but little in the way of new ideas.

Her current show at Plum Gallery, 3762 Howard Ave., Kensington, also has its ups and downs (including some real downs, like "Feathered Square"). But in the best of these spare, intuitive color abstractions -- notably "Snow Games" and "Karima" -- there is a new boldness in the forms, an authoritative brushstroking, and a more assured, expressive way with color, the artist's forte. When Mavrogordato paints a work like "Blue Set Free," for example, she knows how to make the color -- her real subject matter -- do precisely what shw wants. The show closes March 3.

As an antidote to the midwinter drabs, Kathleen Ewing, 3020 K St. NW, is showing "Flowers & OtherFantasies," an agreeable show of photographs by several contemporaries, focusing chiefly on new work of Mark Power and Allen Appel.

Power has undertaken a specific exercise in these, his first large-format color photographs. By justaposing flowery old pieces of fabric with the real flowers that inspired them, he goes beyond simple still life to explore the interplay of pattern and reality, seeking a visual blending of the two.

"Verbana" is one of the few images in which he actually achieves that goal, as patterned fabric and real flowers seem to dissolve into each other. Even more beautiful is "Petunia and Snapdragon Petals," in which the artist gives up the whole notion of matching just the "right flower and fabric than a mere happy solution to a problem.

Allen Appel, whose work seems ever stronger, is here showing intriguing new black-and-white photoraphs of roses, which he has subsequently painted over with oils to give a bold, romantic look. Naomi weissman's welcome view of a beautiful garden seen through a grimy laundry-room window is a special treat here, along with Robert Sagerman's tender palladium still lifes of dried roses. The show continues through March 18.

Flowers are also the stuff from which Margot Kernan has created her exquisite photograph of lilies -- a pale Type-C color print that teeters on the brink of dissolving into pure light -- in the Corcoran's "New Acquisitions in Photography" show. The fragility of her new color work becomes clear in a less successfull image of roses that actually does wash out. b

There is other good work in color byNaomi Weissman (also at Ewing), Sally Mann and Melinda Blauvelt; and much to admire in black and white, notably the still lifes by Neil Maurer, an architectural view by Philip Trager, and the delightfully intriguing slice of life called "Wedding Party" by Carmen Quesada-Burke, in which everyone but the bride -- with clenched fist -- seems to be having a lovely time. The show continues through March 15.