It's not a party you want to be at. For one thing, the cheese and crackers have all turned black, and the people look stale, too. They're talking in small gaggles, most with their backs turned to you. The first impulse upon entering this dim, dank room is to leave.

That reaction may be the ultimate compliment to artists Taina Litwak and Lisa Ohlin, who created this frozen moment for the new show of environmental installations at the Washington Women's Arts Center. Their intention is to rouse the sort of anxieties one often feels in social situations.

With a tiny room, a table, some food painted black and several life-size portraits of men and women painted upon the walls, they succeed. They've also added an abstract dimension by mapping the social dynamics of the situation with arrows drawn on the walls and floor and tablecloth. By the way, the one figure drawn on the wall of "The Party" who offers eye contact is, appropriately, artist Ohlin herself. The piece is a bit ragged in execution, but it works.

And so do the three other installations in this adventurous and varied show, juried by Washington artist Janet Saad-Cook. Margaret Richardson has made an elegant "Satin Wall," a suspended enclosure illuminated from within, giving the appearance of translucent, iridescent tile. In fact, the piece is made from hundreds of squares of white and violet satin, all subtly blended in merging hues. Jan Zorman of Boston has made a drawing in space out of her area, based on Mondrian's forms and colors.

But it is Molly van Nice who has done the most extraordinary job of transforming her closet-sized area into a magical space. Titled "The Museum Piece," this gray, gallery-like room is filled with four white display cases that enclose several all-white objects that look like old navigation charts and astronomical instruments--telescopes, compasses, clocks, and such. Built from wood, or meticulously cut from paper or white mat board, these objects turn out to be pure invention, the ruse heightened by the fact that each is labeled in a sort of illegible mirror-writing.

The piece sets out to make the point that museums, by their very existence, have the power to make pointless objects both important and inaccessible. But it goes beyond that to create--on a room-size scale--the kind of moody magic found in Joseph Cornell's boxes. Van Nice is an important new artist who deserves her own show--soon.

The show continues at 1821 Q St. NW through July 24. Hours are Tuesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Arthur Charles Gallery

If you like hot pink and lime green and need a big painting to decorate a wall, have a look at Pavel Kraus' new work at Arthur Charles Gallery, 2006 R St. NW. It has the additional feature of being washable; Kraus paints on the back of clear acrylic panels.

It is a very slick, high-California look appropriate to the subject: palm trees, swimming pools, houses and sunshine. There are no people here, only schematized views, which, though deftly painted, look distinctly manufactured. Born in Czechoslovakia and trained in Chicago, Kraus currently lives in Washington. His medium diminishes his work.

Also on view at Arthur Charles are some watercolors (and less interesting etchings) by Robert Rivers of Florida. Collectively titled "The Phantasmagoric Series," they are filled with dream-like goings-on involving flying fish, military types, elephants and male nudes who've been sliced up in various ways.

Upstairs are some Nantucket views by realist Mary Anne Reilly (who is also selling posters featuring her panoramic view of Georgetown, seen from the law offices of Patton, Boggs and Blow) and Susan Powell, who makes what appear to be pale imitations of Kevin MacDonald's colored-pencil drawings. The other works on view cannot be taken seriously. All of the above continues through mid-August, and can be seen Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Newcomer/Westreich Moves

Newcomer/Westreich, purveyor of American decorative arts, has moved from 406 Seventh St. NW to 2511 P St. NW, a space formerly occupied by the Georgetown Art Gallery. "We wanted to provide our customers--and ourselves--easier access at street level," says partner John Newcomer. "We handle a lot of large things, and we got tired of hauling them up three flights of stairs. It was a real killer."

Newcomer/Westreich also learned something about the difference between an antique shop and an art gallery. "We wanted to be free from the pressures of mounting the many exhibitions required in the art gallery setting on Seventh Street," Newcomer said. "The expense was killing. Also, if we kept our shows on for more than three weeks, people asked why we didn't have something new. People who go to art galleries are spoiled."

Any dealer in town would say "amen" to that.