"The function of the artist is to rescue simple dreams," says Naul Ojeda, a Uruguayan exile who has graced our city with his prints -- and his presence -- since 1976. Like his country-man, Antonio Frasconi, Ojeda makes bold, mostly black-and-white woodcuts that fuse reality and dreams: symbolic works that are highly original and refreshingly accessible.His new show at Bader Gallery, 2001 Eye St. NW, establishes him as one of the best printmakers in Washington. e

There are dozens of new prints, all filled with levitating people, fish, cats, birds and the ubiquitous sun -- usually printed in bright red -- representing the ultimate triumph of optimism in Ojeda's work. In terms of subject matter, however, he runs the gamut from joy to sorrow, with some autobiographical works among the most poignant. "Immigrant Poet," for example, shows the sad face of a man hovering over a sea of houseboats and levitating people. The artist's preoccupation with the physical and emotional uprooting of millions from their homelands is a leitmotif that runs throughout his work.

Ojeda can be very humorous, and his punning images often express a devilish wish to turn tables on the status quo. In "Fisherman Fished," for example, a giant fish smiles broadly as a tiny human casts his line from a rowboat, unaware that he is already in the fish's belly. The story of Jonah and the Whale is but one of many Biblical tales that waft in and out of memory as one looks at Ojeda's work. Anachronisms notwithstanding, Adam and Eve also seem to be at the core of "Unexpected Encounter," wherein several gentlemen, one of them nude, spy on a nude lady who leans against a snake-entwined tree reading, of all things, the morning newspaper.

Several of the woodblocks used to make these prints are also on view, and they are most revealing, particularly the block for "Peasant Dream," in which the flying hair of a woman is defined by the grain of the wood itself. "I ask the wood, 'What do you want to give me?'" says the artist. "We have a good relationship, the wood and I," says Ojeda, whose show closes June 20.

Michal Hunter's new paintings at Diane Brown, 406 7th St. NW, are something of a disappointment after her last, highly successful show. She is still concentrating on portraits -- very large, photo-realist portraits of art world friends such as Claudia Di Monte and dealer Diane Brown -- but there are also some new, rather garish paintings of people whom the artist has photographed and subsequently painted: Two Oriental waitresses at Scholl's Cafeteria for example, say "cheese" for the camera; a fat black peanut vendor wears a smile even bigger than his sombrero. At best these latter paintings are caricatures; at worst, they might be called insulting.

An even more basic problem here is that few of these images have gained anything by being transformed from photographs into paintings. These are, for the most part, spiritless painted blowups of black-and-white photographs that weren't very interesting to start with. The one large painting on view that is up to Hunter's usual standards shows two barefoot young women refreshing themselves in a city fountain, both caught in a blissful sigh of cool relief. It's an image made even more interesting by the cool, almost icy palette -- a distortion of reality that adds mood, and makes this art , rather than a mere exercise in dexterity. The show continues through June 25.

If you think you've been seeing odd bits of colored neon light emanating from the windows and facades of certain downtown buildings recently, you're not imagining things. They're part of a show called "Neon Fronts," now in the process of being installed in various downtown locations under the sponsorship of WPA. The $40,000 project, funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, will include the work of 12 sculptors, eight of whom have been commissioned to do pieces for specific sites. All are not yet in place.

Stephen Antonakos, one of the best-known contemporary neon sculptors, was at work all week on a scaffold in front of 400 7th St. He was commissioned to do the most ambitious piece of the facade of the old W. T. Grand 5 & 10, which will be WPA's new home when renovations are completed. According to Olivia Georgia, curator for the show, the project was conceived "to give a sampling of current sculpture in neon -- a medium used by artists since 1949." Existing works, including four pieces by William Christenberry, are already on view in the window of the National Art and Frame Company, 408 8th St. NW. Still to come are pieces by Steve Ludlum on a wall outside the entrance at 12th and F streets to Metro Center; Keith Sonnier's work in a window of the Lansburgh's building on 8th Street NW; Gene Davis' pieces in four windows on the Pennsylvania Avenue side of the Willard Hotel; and additional works by Chryssa, Laddie John Dill, Bruce Nauman and William Fallon. This weekend, San Francisco artist William Kane will begin work on a piece on the side wall of Sunny's Surplus at 9th and E streets.

On the subject of plugged-in art, a very beautiful -- but still unedited -- new tape by one of the best video artists, Juan Downey, will be shown continuously at the Osuna Gallery, 406 7th St., between 3 and 5:30 p.m. today. While at Osuna, don't miss Nizette Brennan's extraordinary carved limestone garden benches.