The Arlington Arts Center, which has a tradition of exhibiting emerging artists, has stretched that term to include three who are already fairly well known in the community -- each is represented by a city gallery. But this exhibition of the work of Francisco Alvarado-Juarez, Julie Schneider and James Symons should prove to be the draw the center is looking for as it attempts to shift its public image slightly from that of a community art center to an area artists' space.

Alvarado-Juarez's large paintings are unmistakably Latin. They fairly throb with a kind of vitality that is the product of both the strong hot colors and the energetic and repetitive designs he employs. From his highly patterned settings, figures emerge. Their undulating contours and smooth finish contrast with the more loosely painted backgrounds -- but this work is about contrasts. Alvarado-Juarez's people are caught halfway between two cultures and gnawed at by both. One is rich with ritual and superstition; the other is a contemporary arena which in these elements seems to provide only dreams and memories -- not solace.

Despite the bright colors, this is not an especially happy art. Alvarado-Juarez's figures are despondent, anguished or simply empty. But this is an angst made tolerable by the exuberance of its presentation. Alvarado-Juarez is demonstrating with this exhibition a new self-confidence that makes his work appear both effortless and genuine.

Schneider does superb graphite drawings of near-nudes engaged in either physical or mental combat. These thoroughly modern creatures are nevertheless playing an age-old game. Their struggles have to do not so much with their sexuality as with establishing individual territorial rights. Her titles, such as "It Isn't Up to You," "What Did I Just Say" and "Away From Me, If Possible," lend a strong literary reinforcement to her highly developed concepts, and it is those concepts that separate this work cleanly from the realm of mere figure studies. It would be a great mistake to read these works superficially and assume that their theme was violence or aggression. They can be as highly praised for the sensitivity and complexity of their psychological observations as for the accuracy of the representation.

Symons' work is intellectual and sleek. His is a typically Post-Modern approach that pilfers the history of art for its inspiration. Polychromed torsos, which might be fragments of Greek sculpture, are positioned, or perhaps imprisoned, in niches and then separated from the viewer by bands of metal, grids or simply by glass.

Symons fabricates these box-like constructions out of hardboard, resin and lacquer. Highly finished and fastened with undisguised screws and rivets, they have a kind of techno-macho look which, despite the inclusion of the body-bits, seems to leave little room for romance. Emotion is clearly in bondage here. Unfortunately, this sort of supercool art hasn't left itself anyplace to go. Symons may find himself as trapped as his torsos.

The exhibition, which is at 3550 Wilson Blvd. in Arlington, will continue through May 31. The center is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. At the Athenaeum

For those who are familiar with the works of Deborah Butterfield and Roy DeForest only through the pages of the glossy art mags, the Athenaeum in Alexandria offers a treat in the form of a closer look. The present exhibition, a selection of recent art from the Sydney and Frances Lewis Foundation Collection of Contemporary Art, contains work by Richard Serra, Red Grooms, Philip Pearlstein, Bruce Robbins and others.

Happily it has little institutional timidity about it. Its purpose seems to be to demonstrate the breadth of contemporary concerns and the diversity of approaches to recent art. Clearly it is the individuality of the artists, rather than the particular tastes of the collectors, that is on display here.

In this small but potent exhibition, one can compare the neoclassical tranquility of Milit Andrejevic's portrayal of Central Park to the day-glo daydreams of Ed Pashki. But a curious fact of contemporary life is that much of this work, some of it produced as recently as 1981, already seems a bit passe'. Even so, this exhibition, which will run through June 2 at 201 Prince St., will certainly add to anyone's understanding of contemporary art. The hours of the Athenaeum are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday.