The Caribbean can be described as a rich cultural stew. The main historical ingredients--native, African and European--have been mixed in different measures in each of the islands and the mainland areas upon its boundary.

And yet there is an underlying current, perhaps the mixing process itself, that lends a lively sort of unity to the visual arts of the area. Or does it? This is the interesting question one brings away from "Caribbeana," an exhibition of art from Caribbean countries currently on view at the Fondo del Sol, 2112 R St. NW.

The show is a rather haphazard affair, patched together with works borrowed from local diplomatic and private collections along with recent works by artists working locally whose countries of origin are in the Caribbean region. It tries to do too much with too little, so that it is confusing and provocative at the same time.

The major precursors of today's Caribbean art, for instance, are said to be Rufino Tamayo of Mexico, Carlos Merida of Guatemala and Wilfredo Lam of Cuba (each represented by a small, somewhat typical image). That seems a great oversimplification and is perhaps wrong. Are the mainland artists really Caribbean artists? Is Mexico really a Caribbean country in its cultural experience, and if so, to what degree?

The evidence in the show, as unsystematic as it is, suggests a major difference between the West Indian and mainland cultures, with African influence directly felt on the islands and pre-Columbian native cultures exercising the stronger pull on the mainland imagination.

It is surprising to discover how many Caribbean artists are at work in the Washington area: a dozen in this show, representing seven different countries on the mainland of Central America and in the West Indies.

Three of of the 12--Horace Aberdeen, Kendrick Smith and Henly Cooper--probably never thought of themselves particularly as artists but the large, colorful costumes and masks they made as members of the Trinidad Carnival Committee of Washington are among the most glorious artifacts in the exhibition.

The show continues through Sept. 30. Hours are from 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. At the Touchstone

The anxiety level is high at the Touchstone Gallery in the first solo exhibition of works by Pat Abbott-Ryan, a spirited young painter just two years out of art school, but thankfully she leavens her paintings about Big Life Problems with a tactful appreciation of their comedic possibilities.

Abbott-Ryan's cast of characters includes dogs, cats, birds, fish and human figures that are simply drawn, like basic signs or symbols, and grouped in a variety of troubling situations.

In "Threatened Instincts," for instance, three multicolored cats, beautifully painted in wonderful floral patterns, are caught in the middle of three poles, balancing ceramic pots on their terrified heads while being snapped at top and bottom by toothy bright green snakes. Thus Abbott-Ryan manages to be serious about her subjects without taking them too seriously.

That she is very talented is clear. The space in the paintings is flat--several stories ("Obsession I and II," "Burnout I and II") are indeed told in wallpaper-like repetitive patterns--and the colors are bold and nonnaturalistic. Abbott-Ryan has the gift to make colors sing.

Her excellent exhibition at the Touchstone Gallery, 2130 P St. NW, continues through Sept. 25.