As the newly arrived director of the Visual Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts, New York painter Benny Andrews will be in charge of overseeing a projected $6.5 million in grants next year to fellow artists all over the country. His own credentials as a painter go on display today in a show organized by the energetic Nyangoma's Gallery at 2335 18th St. NW.

Known nationally for his art, as well as his efforts on behalf of other black artists, Andrews was born to Georgia sharecroppers in 1930 -- a heritage that turns up occasionally as subject matter in his semi-abstract paintings with collage. But he is quick to say that that he is "an artist who is black, not a black artist."

"I think that's a qualification," says Andrews. "I'm an artist, and that's how I fail or succeed."

Mostly, Andrews has succeeded. In the mid-'50s, he studied painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, and a decade later was showing his paintings with some of the best figurative artists in New York at Forum Gallery, where he became good chums with Raphael Soyer, Alice Neel and Chaim Gross.

"But whereas Soyer could show his sweatshop scenes, and Gross his candelabras, I had to struggle to paint and show what I wanted," recalls Andrews. "Until Soyer interceded, insisting that my autobiographical paintings were part of my heritage -- not 'protest' art -- dealers shied away from exhibiting any paintings with black subject matter. Later, in the '60s, they wanted nothing but."

There is no sense of "protest," however, in the quiet still lifes and figure paintings now on view at Nyangoma's. All made during the past two years, they expand on the style Andrews has pursued since the '60s: brightly colored semi-abstractions, with simplified, flattened forms sparsely distributed over white grounds. The flower arrangements look like bouquets of multicolored lollipops, the seated figures like people deep in meditation.

But it is the sculptural use of three-dimensional canvas collage that makes Andrews' work unique. One large still-life with fruit called "Life of Plenty," for example, unobstreperously incorporates a large swath of real draped canvas into the scene; all his faces sport three-dimensional canvas noses that protrude from otherwise flat fields. The device is used sparingly but well, and with special power in a painting called "Twilight," wherein a figure with a sculptural nose is seated in a luminous, Vermeer-like interior. Recalling Picasso's cubistic portrait of Gertrude Stein, she exudes an aura of peace, serenity, and quiet contemplation.

The exhibition, which continues through Oct. 9, also includes some exuberant silkscreen prints of jaunty birds related to Andrews' mural titled "Flight" in the Atlanta airport. Hours are noon to 6 Tuesdays through Saturdays, starting today. Andrews will give a lecture on his art in the gallery at 4 p.m. tomorrow. Solo Shows at Athenaeum

Each spring for the past dozen years, the Athenaeum in Alexandria (an affiliate of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond) has held a multimedia juried show with the most sensible prize on record: a solo show the following fall. Last spring juror-dealer Marc Moyens selected winners in four categories from the 480 works submitted: Brian McCall (drawing), M.L. Van Nice (collage), Julie Schreder (sculpture) and Joey Houser (painting). The four resulting mini-solos are now on view at 201 Prince St.

Houser's dark, dry abstractions suggest a young painter with a long way to go, while Schreder's sensuous, nearly abstract wood and stone sculptures inspired by natural forms -- notably birds -- are strong examples in their genre. But the work of McCall and Van Nice deserves the most attention. Eschewing visual reality, both have invented worlds -- and methods -- of their own.

McCall, who has worked as an illustrator and animator, uses a comic-strip format in five large crayon drawings that comment wittily -- but poignantly -- on the state of contemporary society by spinning a tale about Luttii, the God of Individual Space, who becomes a media hero after liberating an unjustly taken prisoner. In the end, however, Luttii is too busy being interviewed on television to notice that the prisoner he saved is being dragged off and destroyed. "Is there no justice in the Universe?" McCall asks in the first drawing.

Van Nice's work expands upon her mind-boggling installation of books and cut paper objects shown earlier this summer at the Washington Women's Arts Center, and includes 11 boxed, sculptural "books," called "The Daybooks of Magali Fee" (another invented character). Filled with meticulously inscribed passages of unreadable script that recall Leonardo's mirror writing, these "books" allude to all kinds of ancient secrets via see-through pages held shut with tiny paper chains and latches. Both McCall and Van Nice will have well-deserved first solos in commercial galleries later this season.

The Athenaeum show continues through September, and is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 to 4, Sundays 1 to 4.