Gayill Nalls is playing a dangerous game, but so far she seems to have gotten away with it. To paintings whose every quality would seem to imply a seriousness of purpose, she has added a quirky little character whose presence sets everything else off balance. This pie-eyed specter seems to have been inspired equally by Edvard Munch and Walt Disney and with its comic quality, it has the potential for undermining the seriousness of Nalls' art. But Nalls negotiates this danger effortlessly -- by the same dynamic that elevates through self-deprecation, this art is enhanced by poking fun at itself.

In "Soul Patrol/Useless Passion/Dante," Nalls invades the underworld and takes on ancient questions about the nature of endless torment. A disembodied spirit with Raggedy Ann eyes and a bubble-gum-pink mouth patrols by those pitiful souls who wallow listlessly in a contemporary hell where fire and brimstone have been replaced by ennui.

Content in art has almost become a cliche', but Nalls succeeds because beneath these mystical/spiritual/psychic explorations, there is a solid formal structure.

Her technique is to underpaint in broad horizontal stripes that, when overpainted, still contribute, however faintly, a foundation as solid as steel beams. Her canvases are organized with ovoid shapes, rich with Freudian associations, and to these she applies thin layers of semitransparent paint. This hazy glazing technique implies layers of time, a continuity with the past and the persistence of a collective memory. Thus Nalls' paintings, and the beautiful small bronze plaques she includes in this exhibition, are concerned with revealing, beneath our technical sophistication, those elemental imperatives from which no microchip will release us -- those drives and fears that remain at the root of human experience. Although this theme is certainly one of the more popular subjects for art today, Nalls succeeds by subjecting it to the rigors of a disciplined and honest approach. The exhibition at Brody's Gallery, 2031 Florida Ave., will be open through April 27, Tuesday through Saturday, 11 to 5:30. Paintings by Steve Miller

Looking at the paintings of Steve Miller at Jack Shainman Gallery is not unlike flipping the television dial -- the images you get are strong, but unrelated, except for one thing -- their detachment from the viewer. Miller paints Indians in elaborate headdresses, a farmer on a tractor tilling the soil, and the president of AT&T, images that all have that quality of distance. He also unites this me'lange by superimposing computer designs.

Miller, an artist from Buffalo, is producing an art about contrasts and oppositions. Occasionally, in a work such as "Replacement," the contrasts are between ideas. The Indians here represent the intuitive and the natural, while the computer lines, which result in a stylized, gridded landscape, represent an imposed, rigid and artificial structure.

When ideas are not in clean opposition as they are in that work, Miller pits one stylistic approach against the other. His base images are always produced in a fairly loose painterly manner, while the computer designs are sharply defined, heavily impastoed to the point that they seem applied, rather than painted, and almost mechanically created. This kind of schizophrenic approach gives the viewer the sense of looking at one reality through another. But because there are two realities, they cancel each other out -- thus there is no reality, only image.

Miller poses interesting questions, employs interesting images and occasionally produces interesting art. But in general, these works seem a little too wedded to formula. But perhaps that's his point -- perhaps he can no more avoid the structure he has imposed upon himself than we can evade that which we have imposed upon our society.

The exhibition will continue through April 24 at 2443 18th St. NW, Tuesday through Saturday 11 to 7, Sunday 12 to 4. Mindy Weisel's Self-Portraits

There is something vaguely shocking about an entire gallery full of self-portraits, but this exhibition at Baumgartner Galleries is all Mindy Weisel and there is an ingenuous quality about this artist that allows you to forgive her almost anything. There is a fair amount to forgive here. Ask Weisel to do one self-portrait and she'll do 20 -- all of which picture her as her alter ego -- a gypsy complete with full red mouth and dangling earring.

Despite all the intensity of the expressionistic approach, Weisel is not letting us look as deeply as she is pretending to. These works are merely masks -- some better than others. Her large abstracts, for which she is justifiably better known, are the real self-portraits, and that is what her collectors are going to want more of.

The show continues through April 20 at 2016 R St. NW, Tuesday through Saturday, 11 to 6.