Lee Haner's new paintings at Tartt Gallery consist of nothing more than colorful little symbols painted on small black panels. But Haner's schematic hieroglyphs -- of suns and shooting stars, of evolving ape and human silhouettes, of swept-wing airplanes and atom bombs -- spin an epic tale that reaches from the beginnings of earth and man to the impending destruction of both.

In the beginning there is "Generation of a Dot," five small, meticulously painted panels that seem to diagram the creation of a solar system, though in ways that remain unspecific and mysterious. Hung side by side, the images -- of sun, stars and high-energy lines, like rays and lightning bolts -- are each repeated, but with slight differences that imply movement and change. Often messages are ambiguous: Here, for example, we aresw,-2 sk,2 ld,10 not certain whether the universe is being formed or the Earth destroyed. But we are quickly seduced into trying to decode the images to find out.

Always a witty and imaginative artist, Haner has not lost his sense of humor, especially as his headless generic human hero (variously called "Sunman," "Knowman" and "Madman") makes his way through a life fraught with phobias and danger. As "Sunman," he loses a bite-size chunk of himself to a shark, and is neatly perforated by a rhino. But it is the man-made dangers of war, not natural dangers, that make Haner fear for the survival of the planet, and that concern is the main thrust of his show.

Yet there is a leavening of wistful humor even in the grimmest -- and best -- of the antiwar works: The all too timely series of five small paintings titled "Madman," which deal, successively, with the evolution of weapons, from sticks and stones to spears and arrows and, finally, to the ultimate weapon, which reduces its hapless creator to a skeleton.

Other more abstract symbols, repeated but slightly changed in each of the five panels, reinforce the sense of ongoing narrative: For instance, a red squiggle -- perhaps symbolizing a lifeline -- gradually comes apart in successive paintings until it finally curls up and dies in the final panel.

Symbols are repeated throughout the show, ultimately becoming a language through which the artist conveys large thoughts with minimal means. "Starman Cross," for example, so simply sums up the evolution of man from ape, the differences between them, and the atomic vaporization of both that it could serve to pre'cis our civilization for any survivors should such destruction occur. It, too, symbolizes the end of life with a red line -- this time the blip of a heart monitor gone flat.

Most antiwar art shrieks, but these paintings quietly seduce with shorthand images that challenge the mind and spirit as they issue their warnings.

The same cannot be said of several installations upstairs, where subtlety gives way to politics and the obvious: Blood trickles from toy guns, walls sprout angry daggers, and grenades and dollar bills rain down on helpless figures in a piece titled "You Get What You Pay For."

Haner's paintings take a cool, intellectual approach to a very hot subject: survival. And like a growing number of artists, he often extrapolates his forms from ordinary signs (like those for bomb shelters) or symbols that we see around us, including in the comics. To his credit, however, there is nothing cartoonish about them.

Other Post-Minimal artists who use signs and symbols to convey content have been noted in "Signs," a show organized by Corcoran Gallery curator Ned Rifkin for the New Museum in New York last fall. An expanded version of that show will come to Washington in the winter of 1987. Haner deserves to be in it.

His show at Tartt Gallery, 2017 Q St. NW, will continue through April 16. Hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Ceramics at Mateyka

Ceramics increasingly has become an expressive sculptural medium since ceramic sculptor Peter Voulkos began teaching in California in the mid-'50s. His work and that of three other northern Californians now at Marsha Mateyka Gallery not only illustrate how far clay has come since then, but also hint at the range and variety of talent now working in the medium.

Oddly, Voulkos himself comes off as the most traditional of the four in his use of bowls or "Plateforms," as he calls them, all chunky and thick, some as crackled and cratered as the Earth's crust. Richard Shaw also makes bowl forms, but trompe l'oeil is his game, and though his assemblagelike houses made from porcelain cigarettes are eye-boggling, it is his plates with embedded bits of cigarette wrappers and beer can labels (all fool-the-eye, hand-painted overglaze) that give the most satisfaction.

Robert Brady's Expressionistic painted stoneware figures dominate here, including one life-size "Astronomer" who stands on his head in anguished contortion -- an amazing feat of clay. But it is the wall-hung "Tuli" figure that is most expressive as sculpture, its fearsome, stonelike body pinned to the wall, teeth clenched, eyes filled with anger.

Tony Costanzo moves farthest away from tradition to prove that wall-hung minimal relief sculpture can be made from clay. Using deckle-edged sheets of fiberglass backing, he paints on layer upon layer of pastel-colored earthenware slip (liquid clay), building up deliciously translucent matte surfaces, which he then partially frames with luscious strips of raw ebony.

A fine introduction to the Robert Arneson exhibition due at the Hirshhorn at the end of the month, Mateyka's admirable show will continue through April 26 at 2012 R St. NW. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays.