ART IN WASHINGTON and Its Afro- American Presence: 1940-1970" is actually three shows in one. It is first of all a display of figurative works by black artists linked to Howard University and the now-defunct Barnett-Aden Gallery. It is a didactic exhibit, as well, describing the influence of African art on 20th-century European painters. And it is also a show of abstractions, mainly by Washington Color School artists.

The local art isn't easy to define, but Washington Project for the Arts is taking a crack at it.

Much has been made recently of the primitive influence on modern art, especially with the recent show at New York's Museum of Modern Art. At Washington Project for the Arts, copies (and a few originals) of works by Picasso, Modigliani, Leger and others are juxtaposed with African masks, sculptures and textiles. We can easily see how the masks transfixed and bedeviled the artists.

Sam Gilliam's draped, stained dropcloth, and Gene Davis' stripes are now familiar local images of the Color School. But there are other scenes here, produced by artists mainly associated with Howard University -- a panoply of subjects, personal styles and levels of quality, from slick posters to a primitive "Lincoln Freeing the Slaves."

Among them are some standouts. John Robinson's "Christmas Door" takes a commonplace subject -- any Washington rowhouse, doorway festooned and trimmed in lights -- and renders it unnatural with a ghostly undertone.

In the florid pink cabaret of "Saturday Night," waiters juggle their trays and regulars juggle their drinks. Men loll sleepily at the bar. The whole raucous room is on a tilt, through the eyes of the artist Archibald Motely.

And form fades away in Alma Thomas' "Study of a Young Girl," a diffused spray of color and light.

ART IN WASHINGTON AND ITS AFRO-AMERICAN PRESENCE: 1940-1970 -- At Washington Project for the Arts through May 11.