Everybody calls Al Carter Big Al Carter.

The adjective refers to more than just his size.

Carter's art is protean, large-hearted, never prissy. Even when it deals with saintliness or sadness -- with holy men of ancient days or the labors of the poor -- one feels the artist's gratitude for all the works of God. He sings ebullient hymns of praise.

And lullabies, and children's songs, and brassy happy marches. Objects of all kinds -- assemblages, collages, drawings, prints and statues, and paintings large and tiny -- fill his exhibition, which goes on view today at the Anton Gallery, 415 East Capitol St. Carter's show is circus-bright and jaunty (and sometimes circus-tacky). Like the circus with its lions, Carter's show acknowledges the dangerous, the bestial. But its snarling has been tamed into exuberance. Warmth pours from the walls. To walk into the gallery is to accept Big Al's embrace.

He uses all sorts of materials -- clothespins, rubber stamps, plywood, broken dowels, shiny junk and drab junk, whatever comes to hand -- and he puts into his art whatever comes to mind. He paints cows and cats and elephants, sailing ships and nudes, still lifes and abstractions, and quartets of puppies wearing red bow ties.

There are 64 palm-sized miniatures in the exhibition's first room. Some show scenes of country life (a man pushes a wheelbarrow, a woman milks a cow), and one shows a single apple, but most of them are portraits, done from memory, not life. Carter walks the streets here memorizing faces, postures, hats. Later, in the studio (or, to be precise, at his kitchen table), Carter gets them down.

The exhibition's second room, with its cartoony dogs and cats, is funnier and brassier. "My happy room," he calls it. In "A Dog Barks at the World," a noisy Day-Glo beast behind a clothespin fence spews dots of yellow spit. The air-brushed picture that he calls "100% Cat Food" depicts a smug bird. The last room contains sculptures, prints and smaller paintings, and a lovely drawing of a man lost in thought beside the sea. Carter says it calls to mind his father, not long dead.

Carter, 38, a Washington native, grew up in "the projects." You might guess that from his art. Poor people and rich ones and the gaps between them show up in his work. He has seen a thousand art shows here, and knows the art world well, and one might guess that, too. He makes art all the time. One sees that in his pictures. True, they're rough in places, hasty and uneven, but that doesn't really matter. The freshness and the strength in Big Al Carter's art overwhelms its flaws. His show closes March 13. Steve Ludlum at Middendorf ---

Washington's Steve Ludlum has loosened up his art and put aside his straightedge, at least for the time being. His new charcoal drawings at the Middendorf Gallery, 2009 Columbia Rd. NW, are memorable and bold -- though less idiosyncratic than those he's shown before. Their gestural figuration feels familiar, up-to-date and, if truth be told, a little bit New Yorkish.

Ludlum, 34, used to put into his art diagrammatic arrows, numbers, and the like, which -- while pretending to convey data -- actually did little more than lead the mind toward blankness. In some ways his new drawings are similarly baffling, but their bafflements disturb one less. Their uninterpretable images have a kind of haunting rightness. Their ambiguity is the sort that one encounters in one's dreams:

Beneath northern lights, a stone cottage by a waterfall bursts into bright flame. Cypresses, or perhaps their ghosts, haunt a night-dark garden. Trees, or maybe corpses, are floating half-submerged in the waters of a fjord. Waves are churned to foam as they break against a cliff whose rocky shapes call to mind an elephant -- or a sleeping moustachioed musketeer.

Ludlum draws with great assurance. His nighttime light and toothy clouds are particularly impressive. There is an unhesitant, convincing weirdness to these drawings. They're strong. They blend the moon-behind-the-clouds romanticism of the 19th-century German Caspar David Friedrich with the empty city squares of the Italian Giorgio de Chirico, and they add to this strange mix a suggestion of Iceland, of volcanoes in the distance, fires underfoot, and trolls behind the rocks. Ludlum's show closes Feb 23.Mark Clark's Me'langes ---------

Washington's Mark Clark, like many other painters, likes to tack up this or that -- a postcard from the Phillips, say, a draughtsman's plastic triangle, a label from a box of California grapes, or a broken saxophone -- on his studio wall. His new still lifes now on view at Brody's Gallery, 2031 Florida Ave. NW, seem to be, at first glimpse, straightforward depictions of the things he sees just beyond his easel. But their casualness deceives.

Clark's still lifes -- like those of the 19th-century Americans Peto and Harnett -- are full of clues to moods or little stories. Each of these small paintings is a kind of visual riddle, a rebus of a sort.

Some can be deciphered. In "Iron City Stillscape," the steel coathanger, the Stuart Davis reproduction and the postcard of the Golden Triangle combine to portray Pittsburgh. In "Florida Avenue Fantasy," the stuffed dolphin on the wall (it's the game fish, not the mammal) suggests the fishing near Key West and, perhaps, Don Shula's ball club, while the Edward Hopper postcard that is pinned below evokes the red brick buildings of Florida Avenue NW; Clark's studio is nearby. The scissors and the logos of Japan Air Lines and Blue Goose shoes in his "East With the Geese" hint at a friend's returning to Japan, or at a wild goose chase.

Clark's art is not fussy. His images are life-size, but even when he paints the crack in a china plate, he does not really try to fool the eye. His pictures feel like paintings. They deal with paintings, too. Clark often reproduces reproductions of Ryders or Caravaggios or other famous works of art. But he always paints with freedom. Throughout this show one feels the artist polishing his craft. And also having fun. Clark's exhibit closes March 2.