Van Gogh, Munch, Scheele and Siqueiros all spent part of their lives in mental institutions or prisons, no doubt along with others of talent whose voices were never heard. Since 1976, the National Endowment for the Arts has sought to promote arts programs for those who live in institutions today -- the handicapped, the mentally ill, the aged, the imprisoned. The result: an outburst of talent that has led, inevitably, to the need for a place to show, and now to Firebird Gallery, just opened at 105-107 S. Union St. near the Alexandria waterfront.

This nonprofit gallery is a project of the crusading National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, which seeks, among other things, to raise public consciousness about the 3 million Americans now living in institutions, and to provide a marketplace for the talented among them. The gallery was made possible by a starting-up grant from NEA's Office of Special Constituencies, which has been wiped out of the federal budget as of 1982.

Peter Makarewicz, star of the first Firebird show, is not in a class with Van Gogh yet, but there's no shortage of talent, originality or determination here, despite incarceration in a Massachusetts prison that began at age 15 and ended last year at 37. Makarewicz learned to paint from the artists who came to the prison to teach, and from the art books he had access to. "My only other teachers were trial and error," says the artist, who now lives and paints outside Boston. His first show on "the outside" was defaced by a viewer who read that he had served time in prison.

Despite the circumstances of his life, there is no hint of anger or bitterness in Makarewicz's handsome paintings and works on paper. As might be expected from one who is self-taught, he has explored a variety of styles, from an early abstract expressionism to the well-ordered semiabstractions he makes today, some of which recall Morandi and Braque. There are also dream-like fantasy images of cities and ruins that have the drama and intensity of stage sets, which the artist may well be suited to designing.

Assuming NCIA can keep uo payments on the rent, other new talents will be unveiled monthly, among them Quinton Spencer Nalle, whose handicap has not hindered his art, and Larry Condon, Attica resident and realist painter who numbers Andrew Wyeth among his collectors. The prison grapevine alone has been bringing two to five letters a day from artists requesting shows, according to criminologist and gallery director Dr. Jerome Miller. In mid-June, the gallery will host the $75,000 Salvador Dali "Crucifixion," recently rediscovered in a prisoners' dining room at Rikers Island.

Lani Irwin has come a long way over the past two years, the span covered by her first solo show now at Gallery K, 2032 P St. NW. The subjects have not changed from those seen recently in group shows: antique mannequins dressed in Renaissance-style clothing, all carefully placed in 15th-century Italian architectural settings featured mock arches and patterned marble.

These paintings would be no more than still lifes of old dolls but for the ambiguity the artist invests in her scenes. In this space real or surreal? Are these figures men or women? Most importantly, are they mannequins or humans? The faces wear human expressions ranging from contemplation to silent anguish, yet the ball joints and missing parts of the figures clearly deny any human status.

But Irwin's art is not for the ages -- not yet. For after wondering what's going on for a while, the viewer may well lose interest. There are no answers forthcoming, no wonders revealed -- only mystery for its own sake. Perhaps greater profundity will ensue. Meanwhile, the mix of enigma, good painting and intriguing patterning -- which often spills over onto the frames -- is quite enough to make this show worth seeing. It closes May 16.

Rene Bro is a charming, soft-spoken French painter who spends part of each year in Venice and most of each year in Normandy, where he paints landscapes that have more to do with what's in his head and heart than what he sees out the window. Like his better-known friend and former student, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, Bro is a painter of joy and of his responses to what he sees, not of precise rendering.His response to the fields and trees and distant hills of Normandy are the chief subject of his current show at Baumgartner Galleries, 2016 R St. NW.

Here landscape becomes pattern -- the fields an endless patchwork of shapes and colors instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever marveled at the European countryside from the window of a jet. Back on the ground, the visual jubilation continues in the child-like roundness and separateness of each multicolored tree. Red skies and pure joy radiate from the horizon. Garlands of birds grace the skies.

Much is possible in the paintings of Bro, but not all of it happens in this show, which has an almost slapdash look in spots. Also, every once in a while a figure appears -- an almond-eyed lady who has become one of the great cliches in modern art. Bro may have invented her, but others have given her a very bad name indeed. His show closes May 16.