"People try to keep their hands off, but nothing works, so we're putting up a railing," said Hirshhorn director Al Lerner. He was talking about the museum's newest painting by Paul Sarkisian, the contemporary American fool-the-eye painter who, Lerner says, "carries the art of illusion one step beyond anyone now or earlier." Few would argue.

And, at the Fendrick Gallery, where Sarkisian's newest trompe l'oeil paintings have just gone on view, they've also had trouble convincing viewers that these are flat, painted surfaces.So they've put up "do not touch" signs.

The problem of and the pleasure in Sarkisian's work is clear from the beginning at the Frederick show. These eight large acrylics appear to be giant collages made from flattened cardboard boxes, pages from the Des Moines Register and sheets of colored drawing paper, all carefully arranged against a white background, and attached by either magic or magnetism.

But closer examination reveals there is no collage, only the meticulous trickery made all the more convincing by the fact that the "cardboard" and "paper" elements often overlap, and sometimes appear to stand away from the background, casting a shadow, which only three-dimensional objects can do. Some thickly painted "objects" -- such as an uncannily real bit of masking tape and several rectangles of colored glitter that look like roofing shingles -- actually do stand in relief, arguing further for their "reality." Even the well-behaved critic is compelled to touch.

And alas, disillusionment! For though the masking tape is, miraculously, pure paint, the glitter is real glitter mixed into the paint. Here, and only here, Sarkisian has abandoned esthetic purity to add a new dimension of texture and light. Impure or not, he has, as a result, produced paintings that are more elegant than any he has made before.

Over the past two decades this 53-year old Chicago-born artist has moved from a pop-like surrealism to virtuoso illusionism and on to his current, more formal and distilled abstraction. "He's no longer a mere trickster," concludes Lerner, "his paintings are as intelligent and carefully arranged as a Mondrian." The Hirshhorn's new Sarkisian, now hanging with the museum's permanent collection, was the gift of fellow artist Georgia O'Keeffe. The Fendrick show, at 3059 M St. NW, continues through April 25.

Quite another kind of reality -- the sort most people would rather not think about -- is the chief subject of two shows of recent work by graphic artist Michael Jacques, both now on view in Alexandria. The show at Gallery 4, 115 S. Columbus St., is an introduction with several of the artist's good-natured etchings and aquatints of people he knew and loved in his native Vermont. They are filled with good cheer and the warm nostalgia of the old sepia photographs on which he based them.

But in the more memorable show at the Anthenaeum, 201 Prince St., the artist has stopped looking at the good old days, and has taken a long, hard look at the present. His subject is how his loved ones appear today: old and ill. The result is a bold series of drawings begun three years ago after several distressing and silent visits to a favorite grandfather in a nursing home. The drawings are titled "Images of Age," and include not only images of the artist's grandfather, mother and father, but of other residents of the nursing homes as well, all rendered in Jacques' spare but skillful linear countour style.

The drawings are at times hard to look at -- crumpled bodies tied to wheelchairs, hooked up to machines and propped up in unseeing rows before television sets. But in the process of making these drawings -- and writing about them in the accompanying text -- Jacques has broken the barrier of fear and revulsion to find a new empathy and admiration for his subjects.

Even the empty C&O Canal -- now undergoing repairs -- can't dampen the pleasure of a springtime stroll along the Georgetown towpath. An added attraction for gallery-goers these days is Canal House Gallery, an artists' co-op located in a three-room basement at 1061-A 31st St. NW, on the towpath between 31st Street and Thomas Jefferson Place NW. The newly-enlarged group of 30 artists has been democratically selected -- somewhat too democratically; it would seem, given the amateur status of much of the work on view. But two new members -- the husband-and-wife team of Fanchon and Henry Gerstenberg -- make a visit worthwhile.

Both are concerned here with impressions of Europe -- notably Germany -- where they recently spent a year savoring and scrutinizing their surroundings. In her tender pastel and mixed-media drawings, Fanchon Gerstenberg has captured the fairytale-like jumble of variously shaped and colored rooftops, turrets and dormers observed from different perches, weaving them into subtly-colored, wholly captivating patternings. Henry Gerstenberg has aimed his camera -- and his poet's eye -- at sidewalk patterns along the Rhine, an inviting table at a taverna and, in his most haunting image, at "Klimt's Park." The show continues through May 3