Nicholas Africano from Norma, Ill., is a young painter on the way up. He has been included in several recent trend-spotting exhibitions, notably the last Venice Biennale and "New Image Painting" at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1979. Now Africano's latest work -- a series of paintings based on Puccini's opera "Girl of the Golden West" -- is being shown simultaneously in New York, Los Angeles and Washington.The well-orchestrated buildup suggests that Africano's dealers intend to see that his success continues.

Africano's current show at Middendorf/Lane, 2009 Columbia Rd. NW, reveals that he is talented as well as "in." His work is also easily accessible, unlike that of most so-called "new image" painters -- a loosely allied group of artists seeking new ways to walk the tightrope between realism and abstraction. Africano is a story telling realist who uses his large, flatly painted panels as stages. Upon them clunky figures, built up into high relief by layers and layers of paint, play out specific moments in his chosen narrative tales, usually with the help of a few painted-on words. His ability to say so much with such minimal means makes his work both new and worth looking at. That his painting can also be deliciously sensuous adds a welcome aspect.

In "This Is a Godforsaken Place," for example, it is not necessary to know the story line of "Girl of the Golden West" -- a love story between a saloon owner and a bandit set in gold-rush days -- to feel the despair of the lone figure perched on the stage-like frame at the bottom. The opera is merely vehicle, used as another artist might use a still life or a landscape to make some larger statement about life.

The ultimate test for these works, of course, is whether they speak independently of the story line. Some do, others do not. The figures in "Our Days Are Like Grass," for example, would be utterly meaningless without the painted-on words. Enough are successful, however, to make it well worth examining, if only to gain further insight into a potentially rich vein of current art. The show continues through April 4.

Alan Sonneman is most often remembered for "The Last Washington Painting" -- a photo-realist view of this city as it might look just after a nuclear bomb blast. In his new show at Gallery K, 2032 P St. NW, Sonneman has symbolically wiped out the city as subject matter, turning instead to a theme that has the same title as Leonardo da Vinci's "Codex Leicester": "On the Nature, Weight and Movement of Water." "In the Water" might have been more to the point, since all but two of these large new paintings show Sonneman or a friend floating or half submerged. But it is the dazzling play of light dancing off the water that is the real subject of his show.

To heighten both the movement of the water and the challenge to his own ample talents, Sonneman devised an ingenious method for two self-portraits: Setting up his camera to shoot the scene, he locates himself behind a sheet of clear plastic, aims a hose at the plastic, and takes a photograph of behind the distorting sheets of water. The photo was subsequently projected on the canvas and painted in two versions seen here: one fairly literal, entitled "An Attempt at Alchemy"; and another entitled "The Magus," in which Sonneman begins to take liberties with the colors, adding an abstract element along with some surreal, fishlike forms. Though "Alchemy" and "The Precambrian Shield" are both top-notch works, this appears to be a transitional show. It continues through April 14.

For her impressive debut at Foundry Gallery, 2121 P St. NW, Yuriko Yamnaguchi has produced a series of small abstract collages. Starting with small squares of wood, she pastes on thin triangles of metal, thick areas of colored paper pulp, and multifarious layers of transparent glue through which printed images can sometimes be discerned. Despite the similarity -- all the constructions consist of rectangles topped by two pyramids -- the results are richly varied in texture and sublte, earthy coloration.

Entitled "Temple," this cycle of work was inspired by Kozin Temple in the artist's native Osaka, wherer, she says, "the quiet atmosphere gave me comfort." The best of her collages will give like comfort to their viewers, despite inconsistencies in quality. The show closes March 28, after which Roxie Munro will be featured in Foundry's last exhibition at this address. In May, the gallery will move to 641 Indiana Ave. NW, occupied through March by Intuitiveye Gallery.

Henri Gallery, now located upstairs at 1500 21st St. NW, is showing Joseph Cornell-inspired boxes by Tom Foolery: three dimensional assemblages made from found, tacky tidbits including glass eyes, eggshells, tiny plastic people and printed matter.

While Cornell's work is in a different league, Foolery does have a knack for expressing himself in this mode on subjects as diverse as fatherhood death and politics. One of the most provocative examples is the ominous "Checkout Time," in which a mother and child attempt an escape from a rooftop (we are not told why) by means of a ladder that is just out of reach. Paradoxically, his attempts at profoundity often produce the shallowest results. The show continues through April 9.