The painting and the song live different sorts of lives. Music moves in time, is fugitive, invisible. The painting is persistent, concrete, silent, still. In his new work now on view at Nyangoma's Gallery, 2335 18th St. NW, Washington's Alfred J. Smith has attempted something difficult, and perhaps impossible. He has tried to portray music in his art.

Smith is on to something. He is 33 years old, a painter and a carver, a conceptualist of sorts, who has taught art for nine years at Howard University. His orchestrated pictures are as good to think about as they are to see.

They were made by many hands; Smith does not work alone. Though built of many pieces and drawn from many sources--from Africa and Asia and the tiles of the mosque, from the colors of 14th Street and the rhythms of John Coltrane--one controlling thought unites their many parts. Smith has tried to build these pictures the way a close band of musicians--now soloing, now pausing, now playing in strict unison--might try to build their sounds.

Smith, who often speaks of "sharing" and of "African communal art," says he "envies those musicians who, together yet alone, generate a sound, a force, each of them can ride. In my community," he adds, "music is far, far ahead of the visual arts."

Whether using brass or wood or paint, the airbrush or the hammer, whether soloing or working the friends (who call themselves the "Geomonic Band"), Smith's process is the same. His system is the system of the recording studio. Each picture here is built of sequenced superimpositions in much the same way as Stevie Wonder, say, might build a single record of many layered tracks.

The pictures in this show all were made to music. In "Ohho: He Who Opens and Closes Doors," one nine-tile image here edged in hammered brass, Smith began by asking Ronald Beverly to create upon each tile freely drawn and sound-inspired calligraphic lines. Responding to those curves, and to the same music, Smith then added to the tiles triangles derived from divisions of the square. Those two now-layered motifs then received a third, a sprayed, transluscent silhouette of a flying bird. A third friend, Edward Shaw, then darkened areas of each tile with colors that appear to close or open doors.

Other "tracks" might be laid down, stains or painted shadows, say, photographs or dots. The order in the music banishes the messy. The process might sound awkward, but visually it works.

"Sound comes before sight," he says. When he looks, he hears. "You walk along the street and see the texture of the concrete and then the cracks in the sidewalk and the shadows of the trees. We sense pulses, patterns, polyrhythms, in everything we see."

The chief flaw of these pictures is that they sometimes seem a little shattered, as if their piece had begun to dominate the whole. Smith's art at times calls to mind modern Pattern Painting as much as it does jazz. One is not surprised to learn that many of these images were conceived as designs for architectural embellishments, for tiled walls or sidewalks. "We would love to do a floor," he says. "We have the kiln and the materials. We're just waiting for the job." If you walked upon his sidewalks, you would almost surely dance. His show closes March 27.

Paintings at Diane Brown's

A terrific energy--Texas-Western, Texas-wild--activates the pictures, tiny and enormous that John Alexander is showing now at Diane Brown's, 406 Seventh St. NW.

If you can imagine you're a memory-guided missile fueled by manic whimsy, zooming over Texas, over prairies, swamps and battlegrounds, at 600 miles an hour, six feet above the ground, you have some sense of the journey the pictures here describe. Bombs burst all around, bones poke out of graves. You see snapping fish and howling dogs, TV sets and millionaires, from the corner of your eye.

Alexander is not wholly kind. Hanged men, hopeless lushes, battleships and LBJ pop up in his musings. His pictures seem less planned that doodled, received, dreamed. A sort of easy irony surges through his imagery. Stand back a few feet, blur your eyes a bit, and you feel you might be looking at fancy, formal art.

A frenetic Jackson Pollock might have filled these drawings with their wars and big-eyed critters and unforgiving jokes, but since their ink is sepia (the ink of the Old Masters), and since they're field paintings (and suggest chic Manhattan taste), they soothe as well as shock.

Alexander, although Texas-bred, now lives in New York, and has an Abstract Expressionist's affection for active brushwork, direct painting and the scale of the wall. His biggest works are really big. "I've Been Living in a Hydrogen Bomb" is 22 feet wide. With its calligraphic squiggles and its sense of western landscape, of dark ponds and seared grasses, it is an active and impressive and handsome work of art. Strange beasts with hollow eyes are not supposed to stare out of abstract action paintings, but there is one in this one. Still the picture works. Alexander had a fine show a few years ago at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. He's a better painter now. His show closes on March 7.

Abstracts at Howard

Something primal, grand and joyous surges through the large and nearly-abstract paintings that Mary Lovelace O'Neal is showing in the art department gallery at Howard University. The first thing that one sees in these large and glinting canvases is a kind of dancing. It is only when one looks again, or bends to read the labels, that one understands that those large, paired forms of crimson, gold or green, are whales making love. O'Neal calls these six big paintings "The Whales F------ Series," but love is what they're all about, love of color and the life-force, of bigness and the sea. O'Neal, trained at Howard in the 1960s, has been a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and still lives by the Pacific. The lines of brilliant color that swirl through her pictures seem the tracks of a slow dance; her big and active brushstrokes suggest awesome power; her metallic pigments call to mind the shine of spray seen in sunlight on the sea. Her show closes on March 5.