SOME OF Steve Ludlum's black-and-white canvases look like video games; others look like directions for assembling cardboard boxes--or taking them apart. The largest painting looks like a burning city--or at least a schematic diagram of a city in flames. "Ambiguity, tension, implied narrative, that's what I'm after," says Ludlum, who believes that a painting must give viewers something to do inside their heads, as well as with their eyes.

The question raised by his show at Middendorf/Lane is how long he can keep his viewers' heads busy.

A former student of stripe-painter Gene Davis at the Corcoran School, the whimsical, talented Ludlum learned from Davis the prevailing system for proceeding through an art career: Get yourself a unique format ("not stripes--that's mine," says Davis), explore the possibilities, and when you find one that works, stick with it. If it doesn't work, move on.

After trying realism, cubism, surrealism and other approaches, Ludlum, now 32 and newly moved to New York, hit on his current format three years ago while he was chomping on a fried chicken drumstick. "The images just popped into my head," he recalls. They were images he had used before--chairs, pyramids, cylinders and six-digit numbers that made no logical sense--but now they were rendered as clean, hard-edged white lines on a black field. They were striking, if wholly baffling images, achieved by masking the forms, laying on the black paint and leaving the white canvas to show through.

Since then, Ludlum has continued to work in this format, always seeking ways to get more "information" and "tension" into the work, but through the most severely minimal means. He creates spatial ambiguity, for example, by showing his objects in perspective, but on an uninflected, flat black ground that denies any depth. He also has introduced a narrative aspect through the implied comings and/or goings of bits of line and form, though such narrative is so restrained and obscure as to be out of reach most of the time.

Only in the large painting of the burning city (untitled, like all of his work) is there a significant narrative aspect, reinforced by ambiguous references to buildings on the horizon (or are they flaming rooftops?) and flaming trash cans and forms that recall the Washington Monument (or is that a nuclear missile about to take off?).

Though Ludlum concedes this is a "successful painting," he is concerned that it is "too accessible, too easy." Quite to the contrary, it is, in fact, one of the few paintings here that has a sustained presence, and that takes--or could take--more than 60 seconds to fathom. Tension is one thing, contrived obscurity another. Ludlum must beware the latter, and find increased access to the former if he is to continue in this format. The alternative is to treat himself to another fried chicken dinner. The show continues at 2009 Columbia Rd. NW through April 24. Hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Chicano Art

"Atzlan" is a word used by Mexican Americans to refer to the mythical land of their origins in the American Southwest; "Califas" their word for California. How some of the best American-born Chicano artists of California feel about themselves, their lives and the world around them is sketched out modestly but poignantly in a small show of works on paper titled "Califas" now on view at Fondo del Sol, 2112 R St. NW.

Included are several of the best Chicano artists in California, among them Carlos Almaraz and Frank Romero, co-founders of the Los Angeles muralist group known as "Los Four"--their name a characteristic crossbreeding of Spanish and English that carries over into the visual language of their art as well.

Romero's vigorous felt-tip pen drawings of the painted cars known as "Low Riders" and Almaraz's mural-size painting on four giant sheets of paper titled "La Conquista" are among the highlights. A small series of drawings on folded paper by Gronk, titled "Get Out of El Salvador," reminds us that these artists have strong and varied political views. Much of the work is for sale at extremely modest prices. A 22-minute videotape titled "Murals of Atzlan," and focusing on several of the 11 artists in this show, can be seen on request. The show continues through April 24, and is open Wednesdays through Saturdays, 12:30 to 6 p.m.

The Glass Gallery

Artists have been working in glass for centuries, but the medium has aroused renewed interest in recent years. A sampling of the broad and impressive span of the current accomplishment can be seen at The Glass Gallery in Bethesda, a daring venture devoted entirely to contemporary art glass, much of it from America, but also representing the famed Venini glassworks in Venice and important glass blowers from Scandinavia. Among the best works on view--and since all items are for sale, the stock changes constantly--are several bowls from Seattle. The gallery is located at 4931 Elm St., and hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.