LEON GOLUB'S painted men are so vivid we can almost hear their voices threatening, gibing. At the Corcoran, a retrospective of the work of this Chicago- born artist deals with power.

But it is entirely negative power -- sadistic, relentless, empty, playing off vulnerability. Peopled with figures larger than life, Golub's paintings decry interrogators and mercenaries, who jeer at the viewer or hold a gun to a victim's head, and horse around with tough ladies and transvestites.

It's not pleasant.

And because the paintings are enormous -- upwards of 10 by 20 feet -- they confront. They involve us in violence waiting to happen. We watch the interrogators warming to their task -- a bound, naked man -- and feel like the neighbors who won't rush outside when they hear someone scream.

Golub, 62, has suffered through the slings and arrows of public taste to seem now quite contemporary. In the wrestling match of modern art, representation has temporarily pinned abstraction, and political statements are just as likely to be found on the painter's canvas as on posters and T-shirts.

Golub's early works in this show are internal. In the twisted bodies of "Siamese Sphinx" and "Damaged Man," he searches for a way to express the evil. The dark side takes on more form in the "Burnt Man" of the Holocaust, and in the naked fighters of "Combat," the color of dried blood. Later, Golub extends his investigation of power, and the misuse of it, to the faces of world leaders. In two series here, Nelson Rockefeller and Generalissimo Franco evolve. But somehow, the very realism of these portraits of power robs them of effectiveness.

Above all, what Golub has captured is ugliness of spirit. To find the horror, Golub consults photographs. "Gigantomachy III" was taken from a photo of a rugby game -- but Golub stripped the uniforms from the players and substituted a naked man for the ball. From news photos, he fashioned the soldiers in his "Vietnam" series. His "Mercenaries" are composites.

In his most recent work here, "Riot II," the subjects turn on us. A loud-mouthed woman baits us; one man raises a fist, while another raises his third finger.

All these images are powerful. But Golub adds to their layers by subtracting. He scrapes off most of the paint with a meat cleaver, leaving a flat surface. Without textures to engage us, it is harder to say it's only a painting. It's terrorism without regard to national origin.

LEON GOLUB -- At the Corcoran Gallery of Art through September 1.