The tense, teeming sidewalks of New York, and their barely contained violence, are the current preoccupation of realist painter Robert Birmelin.

He doesn't moralize in his large, powerful drawings, paintings and color etchings now at Fendrick Gallery. Rather, he watches warily, as if out of the corner of his eye, for the telling gesture within the street crowd that signifies alliance or misalliance, that denotes friend, foe, lover, stranger or thief. In even the least of these emotionally charged images, Birmelin captures the racing pulse of the urban hassle, the constant threat of the unfriendly hand reaching out to grab the purse -- or worse, the person.

His compositions, blurred passages and high-contrast lighting emphasize the sense of action and high drama, with looming, sharply cropped foreground figures framing the ambiguous personal vignettes being played out in the near and far distance. There people walk, stand and stare, bums sleep, couples nuzzle and males reach out -- straight across the canvas or paper -- to lean against a lamp post, or to touch the hand of a woman who turns away. In the fine conte-crayon drawing "Awake," as throughout this show, it is always ambiguous whether these people know each other.

It dawns slowly that Birmelin's scenes are not particularly violent, nor is the neighborhood (mostly West 14th Street near his studio) New York's worst. There are no visible guns, and apart from the possibility of a foiled purse-snatching in "City Crowd: The Refusal," there is no apparent crime in progress.

Yet the threat of violence is pervasive, even between the presumably affluent, white-collar couple in "A Traveller's Dispute," which takes place in the relatively sterile atmosphere of an airport, one of two drawings not set in the city streets. Here, only the crucial narrative elements are seen: the woman's arm at lower left, and the man's mouth, speaking sternly at upper right. But there's no mistaking the sense of crackling tension that Birmelin obviously sees as endemic to late 20th-century urban life.

Overall, the drawings are more fulfilling here than the paintings, two of which seem unresolved, notably "City Crowd: The Embrace Resisted," in which a man's arm looks very much like a loaf of soggy bread. The fact that Birmelin often reworks his paintings and improves them is evident in "City Crowd: The Refusal," which he worked on for five years, with the result that it is now something of a tour de force. His show will continue at Fendrick Gallery, 3059 M St. NW, through Nov. 16. Claude Simard at the Shainman

Though Claude Simard is Canadian, there is something oddly European about his large, colorful oils at Jack Shainman Gallery. Seemingly inspired by Carnival in Venice, these paintings are crowded with masked figures wearing the costumes of kings, jesters, mermaids and giant parrots -- or are those real parrots? The atmosphere is otherworldly, as Simard's characters line up as if to perform in a crowd scene in a play. The problem is, there's no play.

Instead, repetitious oval faces stare anxiously out of the canvas through black-dot eyes that recall not only Picasso and Chagall, but Little Orphan Annie. Except for the giant birds and lively animal masks -- by far the most interesting "characters" in these works -- the figures themselves are mute, mere vehicles for the artist's unquestionably fine brushwork and way with color and pattern.

What this work most recalls is the decorative School of Paris painting that proliferated in Europe after World War II, most of it mired in the influence of Picasso, Chagall and others. Simard is surely much too young and much too good a painter to settle for that fate, and he proves it in a painting based on an oriental motif (via Marie Laurencin) in which the eyes are mercifully closed, and the dangerously cliche'd clowns are absent. What Simard's paintings need now is an idea with some meat on it. The show will be open today and Tuesday from 11 to 7. Shainman Gallery, now celebrating its first anniversary, is located at 2443 18th St. NW. Photography Book-Signings----

Washington photography dealer Kathleen Ewing and photographer John Gossage will be on hand to sign their new books at two different galleries near Dupont Circle this afternoon between 3 and 5 p.m.

At Kathleen Ewing Gallery, 1609 Connecticut Ave. NW, Ewing will celebrate the publication of her first scholarly monograph, "A. Aubrey Bodine: Baltimore Pictorialist, 1906-1970" (Johns Hopkins University Press, $29.95), with a show of vintage images by this romantic photographer who spent 50 years covering, among other things, Maryland's Tidewater area for the Baltimore Sun. The exhibition continues through Dec. 5.

Just across Connecticut Avenue, Jones Troyer Gallery, 1614 20th St. NW, will be celebrating publication of John Gossage's "The Pond" (Aperture, $40), a book of 49 Gossage photographs. Jones Troyer's featured show, "The Surrealist Impulse," has nothing to do with Gossage's new picture book, but everything to do with the Corcoran's current survey of Surrealist photography. Vintage prints by several of the masters included in the Corcoran show are here offered for sale, among them images by Bill Brandt, Brassai, Cartier-Bresson, and the late Andre Kertesz. The Jones Troyer show will continue through Dec. 1. Woodcuts by Un'Ichi Hiratsuka

The revered Japanese woodcut artist Un'Ichi Hiratsuka, who turns 90 this month, will be returning to Japan next spring after 23 years in Washington. But as testimony to his unflagging energy, he will offer for sale his black-and-white prints today (from 11 to 5) and tomorrow (from noon to 4) at the home of friends in Bethesda, at 10202 Fleming Ave. For directions, call 530-3412.

The offerings will range from tiny early landscape and still-life images just pulled from recently rediscovered blocks dating from 1917, to new flower prints and a view of Georgetown University hill commissioned for the cover of the current Washington Print Club Newsletter. Woodblock prints by Hiratsuka's daughter, artist Keiko Moore, will also be on view.