Matt Mullican has the unrelenting energy of a steamroller, the mien and imagination of a clean-cut, brilliant kid, and a reputation any young artist could envy. At 34, he has shown at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, at the trendy Mary Boone gallery in SoHo and in several important exhibitions abroad.

His art, now at McIntosh/Drysdale Gallery, is harder to characterize. For one thing, his posters, banners, flags, charts, plaques and stained-glass panels look more like well-crafted signs than art. And in a way, that's what they are, though they deal with questions far more complex than which door leads to the men's room. Made up of flat, linear pictographs, Mullican's works explore his own personal cosmology, and they do so with signs and symbols he has invented to signify heaven and hell, death and life, and other cosmic things, like fate.

Some of these works are easier to dope out than others: One huge, striking yellow and black banner, for example, features the flat, schematized profile of a human head, the only detail being a large amoeba-shaped brain within. Designed to be read quickly and from a distance, the banner seems to yell out something like "Think!"

And thinking is indeed required if one is to follow Mullican through the byways of his still rather amorphous philosophical ponderings on the nature of creation, and vice versa. Since the '70s, when he began appropriating universal symbols used on airport signs -- including those on restroom doors -- he has evolved his own language of pictographic symbols, here decoded in a glossary-like series of posters that introduce the show.

Weaned on the minimalist esthetic, Mullican seems to be adapting minimal forms to convey complex content -- something several other California artists have been doing over the past two decades.

But it must be said that, cosmology aside, Mullican's works are so fresh, and provide such pure visual delight, that most can be enjoyed on a purely sensuous level. Notable examples are the handsome 5-by-5 foot black granite square incised with neatly laid-out symbols (which one can decode, if one cares to, with the help of the signs), and the strangely mesmerizing canvas covered with ordinary black and white circles.

The most complex work in the show is a mind-boggling, 10-by-30 foot rubbing with paint stick on gessoed cotton that might be called Mullican's history of the cosmos, from the creation to the present. It is also a Rosetta stone of his personal iconography, and includes steam engines, signifying the transformation of matter into energy; circles, symbolizing birth, and a cross section of an early 20th-century Italian steamship, which alludes to history, or art, or something. Frankly, at this point, at least one viewer's concern with symbolism was simply drowned in awe.

Mullican, who was included in "Signs," organized by Corcoran Gallery of Art Curator Ned Rifkin for the New Museum last fall, will be back in an enlarged version of that show scheduled for the Corcoran in the winter of 1987. Meanwhile, Mullican's rather stunning show will continue at McIntosh/Drysdale, 406 Seventh St. NW, through Nov. 20. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Benita Berman at Brody's

Brody's handsome new gallery at 1706 21st St. NW is filled with large new canvases and works on paper by Corcoran Gallery faculty member Benita Berman -- her first major exposure in Washington since the Corcoran's "10+10+10" new-talent hunt in 1982. It is a breakthrough show.

Known for her distinctive T-shirt imagery, Berman apparently has now stored that image away, except for a few small drawings that include tiny T-shirts cut from canvas, pinned to the surface and surrounded with little hearts -- perhaps a form of affectionate farewell.

In the large and bold new works on canvas and paper -- more drawings than paintings -- Berman has moved on with great gusto and new authority to deal with other mundane objects, including boots, tops, forks, tools and an occasional bird, or human outline. All rendered in flat, loosely drawn black outline against a white ground, these objects are then set flying all over the surface, their velocity enhanced by an overlay of still more objects and a flurry of energy lines drawn in brightly colored chalk. The overall impact: joyful, vigorous forms that pick up even more energy as they teeter on the brink of recognizability.

This viewer-friendly show will continue through Nov. 2. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Ella Tulin Bronzes at Wentworth

Sculptor Ella Tulin continues her singular pursuit of the female nude in a show of large and small bronzes and terra cottas at Wallace Wentworth Gallery. Working in her own distinctive style -- sleek, ample women with small heads and gigantic buttocks and thighs tapering down to tiny feet -- she here examines variations in posture, from the triumphant standing figure with raised arms, titled "Fully Empowered," to a small group of playful tumblers.

But most successful is "Bronze Arch," cast in a format she (via Henry Moore) has used before: the split reclining figure, with the smallish torso cast in one piece, and the gigantic crossed legs in another. The show continues at 2006 R St. NW through Nov. 2. Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.