At first glance, WPA's latest offering looks more like an installation of minimal sculpture than what it is--a show of old photographs being used in new ways. It begins mysteriously, behind a closed door, with a view through a distorting peephole--suggesting that what you are about to see has been altered by the artists' point of view. Once inside, it turns out that the entire space has been altered--rebuilt by the artists, Suzanne Hellmuth and Jock Reynolds (husband and wife), to accommodate their unusually "framed" photo-ensembles. WPA has never looked better.

Titled "A State of the Union: Photographic Juxtapositions," this show may, in fact, have more to do with principles of collage than photography, though photographs are its base. Aware that the meaning of images, like words, can be changed radically by altering their context, Hellmuth (a performance artist) and Reynolds (a sculptor) have spent the past three years hunting down 19th- and early 20th-century photographs in California archives in order to recombine them (often by threes) into social narratives on the present. Some are sly, humorous comments on patriotism; others are angry polemics against guns, automobiles and injustice. A few are overdone, but on the whole, it is a compelling show.

The implied narratives are set in motion in various ways, juxtaposition being the chief device (and one currently in use by several contemporary photographers). There are, for example, three photographs framed together and collectively titled "Fixtures," the central image featuring a newborn baby stowed in a metal hospital cart, the photos at left and right showing row upon row of school and office desks, suggesting a future filled with regimentation. In another trio of images titled "Complications," a sick child attached to a tangle of tubes, a press conferee attached to a tangle of microphone wires, and firemen dousing a fire with a tangle of hoses easily make their point, through both visual and compositional resonances.

The meanings, of course, are never explicitly stated, but are implied through an interplay of images that require the participation of the viewer to "get" the point. Sometimes, a more cinematic technique is brought into play, as the artists force the viewer--by various means, including masking--to zero in on segments of an image. In "Decoration," for example, a young soldier is having a medal pinned upon him, but the artists insist that we focus upon his damaged hand and pain-filled eyes.

There is levity here--overdressed kids at a prom, a buxom woman carrying a sign advertising a "nude, interracial love dance"--but there is also a heavy dose of tragedy at the end of the show, both in a long, narrow piece dealing with automotive "Carnage" and in another that incorporates the photograph of the last publicly advertised lynching in America. The range is impressive, the restraint admirable. Oddly, the most ambitiously "sculptural" works--notably one dealing with catching fish--are the most superficial, while a simple pairing of images, titled "Pollen," is among the most beautiful.

The show will continue through June 19 at 400 Seventh St. NW, and is open 10 to 5, Tuesdays through Saturdays. Abstractions at Phoenix II

Phoenix II is showing works by Boston-born Conrad Marca-Relli, 69, well known during the '50s as one of the early abstract expressionists, and even better known in 1967 when he was given a retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York. When last seen in Washington--in the 1965 Corcoran Biennial--Marca-Relli was showing work in the distinctive style that had, by then, become his hallmark: large, handsome abstractions in restrained black and earth tones, distinguished by large, curvaceous areas of applied collage cut from canvas and burlap.

Since then, it would seem, Marca-Relli has been strumming the same, somber tune, and that is the problem with the current show. Welcome as they are, the 33 large works on view--dating from 1959 to 1977--suggest that Marca-Relli has nothing new to say, but insists upon saying it anyhow. The show closes at Phoenix II, 1875 I St. NW, today at 4. In case you missed earlier shows of Elaine de Kooning watercolors and Ibram Lassaw sculptures and works on paper, they, too, can be seen for the asking. Art by Inmates

The Martin Luther King Library, 901 G St. NW, always has an odd lot of art on view, but two of the current group now showing in Gallery A-2 merit special notice if you're in the neighborhood and have an interest in art that's bloomed behind prison walls. Painter Hans H. Vorhauer, an inmate at the State Correctional Institution in Graterford, Pa., (where he first learned to paint) has had two previous shows in Washington--one at the library and the other at Firebird Gallery in Alexandria. But none of his work compares in sophistication to the painting titled "Experiment 22," a bird's-eye view of a maze-like piece of space-age apparatus on view in this show.

It is possible, of course, that Vorhauer has borrowed this image from something he saw in a magazine--original subject matter being hard to come by in prison. One must assume that the black-and-white paintings based on the ballet "Eugene Onegin," along with his reclining nude, were so inspired. Whatever its source, however, "Experiment 22" well deserved the prize it took in a show at the Wayne Art Center.

Vorhauer's mother, who has long championed her son's work, has also introduced the art of Herb Langnes to the library--another artist whose talent came to the fore in prison. Langnes is a true talent, best expressed here in a charming painting of two hang-gliders soaring over the countryside. "A Pride of Lions" and "Jungle Stream" also sustain the look of primitive innocence that one hopes he does not lose in an attempt at greater precision. The work by both artists is on view through May 25.