Painter Steven Cushner cuts canvases into ribbons, makes loops out of the ribbons, glues them onto a backing, then stiffens the loops with a plastic glop. Then he applies acrylic colors -- pinks, lime greens, indigos, purples. The results are eight large florid paintings that are thin as canvas, stiff as shields, gaudy as tropical fruit. They can be seen at the Jack Shainman Gallery, 2443 18th St. NW, until March 23.

These abstract constructions by the young Washington artist, concurrently having his first New York show at Shainman's East Village space, alternate between being paintings and sculpture. Close up, one is aware of Cushner's exuberant and enameled daubs of color. From a distance, color becomes sculptural shape: Circles, spirals, mandalas form large tacky/elegant medallions with bumps of canvas loops that variously suggest a petrified rug, a hand-painted alligator hide and a warrior's ceremonial shield.

For all their muffled whimsy, these are serious contemporary works. In tone they resemble other "three-dimensional" paintings such as the Frank Stella pieces in the Hirshhorn's "Directions" show, which are large, blatant and aggressive: the bullies of the art world. But in Cushner's subtler hands, swagger is tempered by humor as the formal and the wacky collide in playful yet thoughtful ways. Eventually, self-aggrandizement becomes winsome and perhaps even endearing.

The Jack Shainman gallery is open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sundays from 2 to 6 p.m. 'Contemporary Women Artists'

Group shows are invariably frustrating as a viewing experience: If you like what you see there's usually not enough of it; if you don't like what you see there's often too much.

"Contemporary Women Artists," the current show at Galerie Triangle, 3701 14th St. NW, is a little frustrating on both counts. Certainly the curatorial contention that the annual competition (this is the sixth of the same title)exists partially to redress the lack of opportunities for women artists is less than compelling in a city where this month almost half the openings are shows by contemporary American women artists.

But maybe more to the point than ideology is the fact that juried group shows like this and others sponsored by Triangle give unknown artists an opportunity for exposure. And judging by the response to this -- 400 entries -- and other Galerie competitions, there are a lot of artists out there looking for such opportunities.

Unfortunately, many of the 70 pieces on view -- which run the gamut from ceramics to sculpture, printmaking, painting and photography -- seem amateurish works by people who have mastered craft but are not yet making art.

Fortunately, there are some notable exceptions -- the collage by Sioux Lawton, from Garner, Iowa, being one; and the enigmatic photo-fables connected to macro-images of body parts, by Ashley Owens of Chicago, another.

Of special interest, too, are the paintings of Atlanta's Kathy Yancey and the photographs of Suzanne Ferguson, an artist from Brookline, Mass. Yancey's ironic, mock-primitive paintings show cheerful interiors inhabited by people connected by their anxieties. Unfortunately, she only has three works on view. Scarcity also is the problem withFerguson, who is represented by only two pieces. But even with such skimpy evidence, Ferguson's talent is clear: Her color prints, drawn and scribbled upon, give us a satirical look at Americans' summertime practice of immolating small animals in the back yard.

"American Contemporary Women Artists" closes April 26. The gallery is open from 2 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Making an Impression

Another current group show is the Art Barn'spresentation of the eight members of a Bethesda group headed by Ann Zhan and called the Printmaker's Workshop.

One of the purposes of this cheerful but somewhat undemanding show is instructional; the viewer learns the intricacies of viscosity etching through a photographic display and also gets to see the artists' metal etching plates, some of which are more interesting than the prints they produced.

George Chung's etchings provide the most pleasure; in fact that seemed to be the primary emotion behind his sure lines and spirited colors. "Red Nude," with its assertive poster lines and Matisse-like reds, is a good example. Much of Chung's work reveals his pleasure in French art; a Gallic flavor infuses the energetic "Candle," which gives us a humorously hectic city scene from a cafe table's viewpoint.

Susana deQuadros takes a single etching plate and works it through a number of wistful variations, sometimes changing colors, sometimes her enigmatic figures. The result is a charming sequence that seems like intimate pages from an artist's sketchbook.

An exact sense of place and time gives Nina Muys' "Teapot and the Creek" a special quality. Zahn's pressed paper collages ("100 Views of Home #80") are more effective than her etching-embossed quilts, although the one called "Paradise," with its nudes and elephants, would be an amusing companion on a cold winter night.

The Art Barn, 2401 Tilden St. NW, is open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. "Plates Plus" closes on April 6.