SURFACE IS everything to Joe Zucker, who used to make images of lovebirds and goldfish by plopping paint-soaked cotton balls onto canvas.

It was no simple-minded act: In Zucker's well-informed view, paint and cotton (in the form of canvas) were traditional media, and he had set out to use them in nontraditional ways. "The image was not so much on the canvas as it was in the surface," wrote Zucker in his essay for the landmark "New Image Painting" show at the Whitney Museum in 1978, restating a modernist credo in "new image" terms. That show helped catapult the artist into the big time. His inclusion in the 1979 Whitney Biennial secured his perch.

By then, Zucker had made a slight switch in strategy, moving from cotton balls to lengths of handmade cotton rope, which he used to "draw" the basic outlines for his increasingly decorative, patterned works (stained glass windows and such). But the rhetoric still pertained: As before, the cotton served as "container" for the paint--literally holding the thick, alternating layers of color and transparent rhoplex glop in place until they dried. Zucker did violence to his surfaces by drying them with a fan, forcing them into giant crackle patterns. The work was done flat on the floor out of sheer necessity: Otherwise it would have slid like a mass of visual sludge straight onto the floor.

In his first Washington solo at McIntosh/Drysdale, we find Zucker, now 42, persisting in--and elaborating upon--this technique. But we also find him in the process of shifting from purely decorative subject matter--exemplified in the "Octopus" paintings--to images with social significance: war, racial prejudice and poverty among them. Once again, Zucker has managed to stick to his rhetoric while remaining on the cutting edge of what's going on in the art world--no mean feat.

The dominant piece in this sampling of recent work depicts two giant wrestlers--one Oriental, the other American Indian--rendered in a flat, cartoonish style, but its looming power overwhelms. The contained violence in this painting--and in the far less interesting boxing pictures--is reinforced by the contained violence of the surfaces--a meaningful juncture of form and content. This work--as well as a new triptych punningly titled "Hand Warmers"--make the show well worth a visit before it closes June 2. McIntosh/Drysdale is located at 406 Seventh St. NW, and is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Gooding's Paper Sculpture

Like sail kites, Sarah Stout Gooding's new sculptural works of paper at Gallery 10 drift gently from her own poetic memory into that of the viewer, rousing recollections of place--Dublin, London, Mount Kenya.

To achieve this, Gooding combines several techniques she has used singly before--printmaking, sculpture and drawing--into unique forms that actually look like small, asymmetrical, unflyable kites grounded permanently by their frames.

Starting with heavy paper silkscreened with layers of delicately colored inks, Gooding bends the dampened paper into rounded, vertical folds, into which she inserts balsa dowels secured with silk thread. She then adds specific subject matter in the form of passages of drawing or writing--sometimes reproducing floor plans or street maps from old guide books, or passages from literature. She achieves a powerful evocative effect, as in a particularly appealing piece that combines a floor plan of the British Museum with a line from Milne: "Whenever I walk in a London street, I'm ever so careful to watch my feet . . ."

"It's a childhood memory that comes back to me every time I'm in London," says the well-traveled Washingtonian, who does not title her pieces because, as she says, "I don't want people to get hung up on titles; I want them to have their own ideas." It works, both here and in a fine suite of collages based on the music of Erik Satie, which incorporates bits of broken eggshell, razor blades and dead flies painted silver. Less can be said for the large sculptures made of cloth.

This impressive first solo continues at 1519 Connecticut Ave. NW through May 22. Hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

'Combat Island,' in Miniature

Dutch miniaturist Pim Leefsma--who deserves far more attention than he has yet attained--has had an uncanny premonition of trouble in a group of imagined strategic islands. For his show at Bader, he invented--before the Falkland crisis--a whole vocabulary of comic-abstract forms representing "Combat Island," its defense system, infiltrators and chastity-belt like borders. The ensuing "war" is played out in a series of captivating gouaches that are considerably funnier than the real item. The show continues 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, through Saturday at 2001 I St. NW.