Genna Watson works 35 hours a week as a waitress at the Holiday Inn in Alexandria. She is also one of the best young artists in Washington.

Once a poet, Watson now uses sculptural forms--often in life-size tableaus--to rouse her audiences. Her new show at Fendrick--her first in a commercial gallery--is filled with gray, seemingly disinterred human figures made from clay and rags, hair and paint that never quite cover the underlying armature of chicken wire and sticks that protrude where flesh should be. They all wear mask-like faces modeled from clay--not cast, as is often mistakenly assumed. The figures are also modeled, and handsomely so, despite the macabre aura they often ultimately project.

Some figures are free-standing, such as the woman who kneels beside a chair in the central tableau titled "Springtime Resurrection Concerto." Behind her is a wax cadaver of a newborn infant--a horrendous, riveting image. What has happened? "I'm not literally trying to portray anything," says Watson, who does not like "explaining" her work. "These are images from the subconscious. They begin with a visual idea that just pops out. I draw it and later work on it till it feels right." The titles are similarly mute: "I made them up this morning before the show opened," she said. But one thing is clear: These works are more easily "felt" than decoded, and, in the end, their strength comes from their power to provoke, to move and envelop the viewer--understand them or not.

Other figures, equally haunting, hang from the wall, as if impaled or crucified. In one such work (pictured here) the figure seems to be receiving the stigmata, a vestigal nimbus around its head, though the artist denies any specific religious content. In several smaller works, heads, candles, stuffed rubber gloves and other detritus are offered up on altar-like structures befitting some elusive ritual.

But the show is haunted by questions, as, indeed, it is meant to be. Are these figures, with their mask-like faces, asleep or dead? Though collectively titled "Sleepers," it is hard to imagine such a pain-free sleep wrapped in such ragged flesh. Watson insists that her work is misconstrued in this respect; "people always think the figures look like decaying bodies, but they're not. They're in the process of coming together, not apart." That is a notion most viewers will have to take on faith, at least for now.

Watson says this realization dawned upon even her only recently, and it no doubt accounts for the subtle but basic changes in the best of her works since her appearance in "Images of the '70s: 9 Washington Artists," a new-talent show at the Corcoran in 1980. "Springtime Resurrection," for example, has a newly "finished," more centered and focused look. And so do the graceful "Swansail" and the touching "Heartbreak Rock," wherein a couple sits on a ledge, encircled by what appears to be a giant crown of thorns. They are all still elusive, but they also have more to do with life than death. As ensembles, they are less of a visual and emotional mishmash than some of the Corcoran works. These faces do seem serene, asleep and alive, though their bodies, on the whole, still tend to deny that. Watson's show, which takes a large step toward a more mature phase, continues through May 1 at 3059 M St. NW. Gallery hours are 10 to 5, Mondays through Saturdays.