Jack Boul's little pictures are grandly unpretentious. They never shock or shout. They are as diffident, as mild, as the calmly grazing cows he so frequently portrays.

Four of his small sculptures and scores of his small drawings, monotypes and paintings are now on exhibition at the Watkins Gallery, American University. Their partial but insistent refusal of modernity gives these works odd power. At first they seem to be objects from the past.

The subjects he returns to are subjects out of time -- cows standing beneath shade trees, a country road, a loaf of bread, a blacksmith at his anvil. His colors feel age-dimmed (Boul likes to print his monotypes in sepias, not blacks). The scale he prefers is not the scale of the wall, but that of the book. Boul often leads the mind toward retrospective musings. His pictures make one think of old libraries, old etchings. Their scholarly allusions -- to the still lifes of Morandi, to Medardo Rosso's sculptures, and to the cow-filled, brownish landscapes of the Barbizon School painters -- summon up an era less hectic than our own.

But walk up to the wall, look closely at these objects, and their anachronisms vanish. Their antiquity evaporates. Much about Boul's art -- his abbreviating brushwork, his reliance upon symmetries and Mondrian-like rigors, and his willingness to blend the timeless with the swift -- is less old-fashioned than new.

Somewhere in Jack Boul there dwells an action painter. He does not pause to render, he relies upon first markings, upon quick, unplanned attacks. His subjects may be out of time, but his touch is modern. In his brushwork, in his thumb-strokes, in the shimmer of his surfaces, one feels all the jitter of our accelerated age.

He is never picky-picky. He summarizes broadly. A number of his drawings, particularly his beach scenes, are so full of suggestions, and so resistant to clear readings, that they feel like abstractions. In the oil he calls "Shady Grove," he does not paint an oak tree, its branches or its leaves; he paints passages of light. Something dances in his pictures. They will not rest beneath one's gaze. Their many subtle parts separate, disperse, and then unite again.

Something crisp and formal is frequently concealed beneath their surface ease. His cows look casual; so, too, do his brushstrokes, but Boul's compositions rely on right angles and are far more rigorous than at first they seem.

Boul is 58. He was born in the South Bronx (though, except for a few streetscapes and views of factories and smokestacks, one would never guess it). A long overdue museum show of Boul's art, organized by Joe Shannon of the Hirshhorn Museum and scheduled to open next year in Atlanta, should also be seen here. Boul taught for many years at American University and is well remembered there as an extraordinary teacher. Those who view his present show will know why. Boul's unassertive pictures help teach the viewer how to see. The show closes July 3. William Dunlap

Washington's William Dunlap is another painter whose pictures at first glimpse, but at first glimpse only, suggest rural peace. His current exhibition at Gallery 4 (115 S. Columbus St., Alexandria) also offers to the eye grassy slopes, and cows, and bright summer skies. But here, too, something strange, something up-to-date and unexpected, hides within the art.

These sweet bucolic scenes of frame farmhouses and barns, of morning in America, of placid ponds and fence posts sticking out of snowdrifts, might lead the viewer to believe, as the Wyeths' paintings often do, that, yup, those were the good old days -- but Dunlap won't permit it. Something harsh and frenzied lurks within his pastorals.

Look closely at his paintings. There, where one expected fresh green blades of grass, Dunlap instead offers compass arcs, right angles, messy drips and scribbles, broken press-type letters and little alien vector-arrows. It is as if the viewer, leaning down to pick a wildflower, suddenly discovered that the blossom in his hand was a plastic-and-metal ominous machine.

In "Famous American Art Places (Number 47)," the broken 17th-century gravestones in the foreground lead the viewer's eye to messy fingerprints and rings left on the surface by coffee cups or paint cans. In "Winter Light (Valley Series Number 5)," odd triangles and circles, a code one can't decipher, hide beneath the gray of the winter sky. In "Old Ruby and Old Buck," a portrait of two hounds, the dark trees in the background are not graced with leaves, but with splats of colored paint and Es, Ks, Ls and Ps.

The viewer who asks a picture by Bill Dunlap to lead him to nostalgia is, instead, confronted with the harsh, electric chaos. Stepping back, astonished, one suddenly discovers that Dunlap's colors, too, have within them something wrong, inorganic, plastic. Those grass-greens are too bright, those lakes a bit too blue. Dunlap in these pictures, as in his current show in the Corcoran Gallery's rotunda, is not only hymning the beauty of rural America. He is recording its corruption. His show in Alexandria runs through July.