Giant posters set the stage: an 1841 sheet hawks a varied exhibition with "the total exclusion of all immodest expressions, costumes or actions in all its performances, added to the superb Menagerie of Wild Animals collected from the four quarters of the Globe, (which) embolden the proprietors to hope for the general countenance and patronage of the Public." The Corcoran seeks the same with "Center Ring: The Artist (Two Centuries of Circus Art)."

Although a three-ring extravaganza itself, the exhibit is tightly woven, emphasizing serious artists' treatment of the theme and relegating the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey to the sideshow.

The bizarre separate reality of the circus has captivated artists from John Steuart Curry (whose lion tamer, elephants and acrobats are painted in heroic poses) to Arbus' and Mathew Brady's photographs of freaks. Honore Daumier, like Picasso, observed the dark side of the road show, as in "The Montebanks Changing Place," a downcast family trooping on. Milton Avery's "Chariot Race," in which a sad-happy clown emerges from a sea of blue against fluid horses and trapeze acts, flows from the same dream as Marc Chagall's "Le Grand Cirque," where an angel oversees the magical performance.

There's no lack of circus sculptures -- Picasso's bronze "Jester" and Calder's wire "Acrobat," "Blue Cow" and "Rearing Stallion" among them. And there's more -- 104 works, including parts of an 1880 circus wagon. Tightrope walkers as seen by Paul Klee and Max Weber; Henri de Toulouse- Lautrec's bareback rider in "At the Circus: Chocolat;" Kenneth Noland's "Clown" (eyes and nose imposed on the familiar circles) and even H. C. Westermann's "Freaks" focus on circus people as a breed apart.

How far apart, how real but unknowable they are to us, is seen in an installation by Steven Linn in a room apart. "For Karl Wallenda" perches a riderless bicycle on a high wire, supporting an empty chair and a balancing bar, with one ballet slipper on the ground below. TWO CENTURIES OF CIRCUS ART -- At the Corcoran Saturday through June 6. CLOWNING AROUND: MIMES AND FACES -- At the Corcoran Saturday. Workshops at 11, noon and 2:30 provide the basics of circus make-up at $4 per face. Call 638-3211, extensions 46 and 47 to pre-register. At 1, The Plexus Mime Theatre, free.