Donald Davidson's recent paintings are gentler on the eyes than his earlier works. Where formerly heavy black lines fractured the compositions like prison bars, now delicate, pastel colors seep around them, the way light blurs the leading of a stained-glass window.

The figure still dominates the pictures, vaulting, falling, dashing across the canvases. Are these jagged postures expressions of ecstasy or agony?

"I use dancers for my models," says the 31-year-old Washington artist. "I usually request the models to use their bodies to describe an emotional or spiritual event in their own way. I like moving bodies -- they confront life. You could say I choreograph my paintings. Having danced myself, I have a good idea of how to use these motions.

"In my work, I attempt to celebrate life in all its happiness and struggles. When one makes a struggle to broaden one's life, that struggle is a glorious thing. It can be a painful thing, but not in a negative way."

Davidson paints very much in the Expressionist mold, but he stresses his disapproval of such categorization: "I'd prefer not to be called an Expressionist. To categorize is to eliminate." Yet anyone viewing his large, emotional paintings cannot help but be struck by their resemblance to the Neo-Expressionist works of Baselitz and Immendorf.

Earlier this year Davidson had the opportunity to experience the German Neo-Expressionists' milieu firsthand. He and seven other Washington artists were invited to show their work at the Weekend Gallery in Berlin. The experience, for him, was revealing, and served to reinforce his perception of the differences -- in philosophy, at least -- between his work and theirs.

"My experience in Germany was that everything was just thrown out the window," he says. "Everything was raw.

"I felt an affinity for the intensity of expression -- everything here has, for years, been too intellectual and dry. But I do not, in any way, align myself with German angst and pessimism.

"In a way, Germany is a big casualty. They are a warrior race that has become passive. The nature of their work encourages pessimism, rather than working through it. Berlin is like one big 9:30 club. People are identifying themselves with their trauma -- I think angst is the largest element of current Expressionism. Instead of finding their own unique self, these painters attach themselves to this angst."

Of much American Neo-Expressionism, Davidson has this criticism: "There's a lot of superficiality to it. No development, no transcendence."

One of the recurring elements in Davidson's paintings is water. His figures splash through it, roll in it, emerge from it. It serves as a unifying agent in his crowded tableaux.

"Water is a very primal, archetypal element which immediately contacts something in the viewer. It relates to birth and rebirth. And it has emotional implications -- the sea can be both calm and stormy."

Davidson sees his work as something of a ritual. The paintings, for all their homage to the tenets of Expressionism, are quite formal, employing -- and employing effectively -- every technique he has encountered.

"I see the artist and his work as a medium," he says. "My influences are beyond myself. Certainly I direct the way things go, but in order to work, I have to open myself up to all my experiences, including those beyond myself."