Five years ago, fresh out of graduate school, painter Henry Leo Schoebel attracted wide attention here with his opulently decorated "storyboards," as he called them -- long, slender wooden planks covered with jewellike enamel colors and dense, intricate patterns that all but obscured the witty little narratives buried among them.

Those narratives -- when you could find them -- dealt humorously with mundane aspects of everyday life, love and other tribulations, all played out by comic, pointy-nosed characters who seemed always to be in trouble. The sudden discovery of a human drama incongruously entangled in lavish decoration made for some memorable works: One, titled "A True Story," depicted a nude figure madly dashing out the back door of what was presumably a lover's apartment just as another figure walked in the front.

The highly patterned surfaces of these works and the mandala-shaped paintings that followed were inspired by Indian miniatures and Persian manuscripts, the decorative nature of which had fascinated Schoebel since his student days at Syracuse University. In 1984, at last, the artist went to India for a year on a fellowship. His fans have since been waiting to see the results.

They're in for a shock: Schoebel's show at Osuna, the first since his return and by far the most important of his career, has little to do with India and everything to do with Italian Renaissance altarpieces, which he saw on the way home.

"These paintings were a surprise to me too," allows Schoebel, though he says that classical architectural themes -- columns, domes, balustrades, illusionist marble floors and scenes in single-point perspective -- were floating around in his mind even while he was in India.

"I gained a great deal of energy there, but I also reconciled myself with the West, which I was fighting for a long time," he says. "Now I feel I've merged the two, making western paintings in a decorative way without a real dependency upon an eastern look. I've digested it, and it's coming out in a more personal way."

It's true: Though these oil paintings on birch plywood look at first like elaborately framed altarpieces (the frames are attached and painted in faux marbre), they are filled with the same sort of comic, semiabstract scenes buried in the earlier storyboards. Now, however, the pointy-nosed Everyman figure is at center stage, acting out various roles: His arms flail helplessly in a painting titled "Pool Drowning"; his mouth babbles obscenely in "Telephone Rape"; and his body lies tangled among columns in the show's strongest painting, "Lover's Leap."

Schoebel's meanings are always obscure, and though titles like "Telephone Rape" offer ambiguous hints, they are prods to the imagination more than clear messages. In "Lover's Leap," for example, the blood-red figure in the foreground seemed to me to have been pinned down and destroyed. Schoebel was surprised at this interpretation, though he had no objection to it. He said that when he began the work, he had in mind a romantic painting by Fragonard.

"I hesitate to be too analytical about my work," he says, "because it's not so much the destination as the journey to it that matters, and that's very Indian." That philosophy also guides the creation of his paintings, which are made without any preliminary sketches. For this show, he had the shaped birch plywood panels and wide frames fabricated by a friend, and then simply set to work painting them, following his instincts as he went along. In "Pool Drowning," for example, the initial impulse came from a line in a poem, but from there the painting took on a life of its own.

"I know where they begin," says Schoebel, "but I'm often surprised at where they end up."

These paintings will all end up on collectors' walls. The show opened last week and has sold out. It will continue at Osuna, 406 Seventh St. NW, through May 3. Hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m..

Alex Katz at McIntosh

In tandem with the Alex Katz retrospective now at the Whitney Museum, New York (through June 15), McIntosh/Drysdale Gallery is showing several of the deadpan cutout portraits that have made Katz one of the most distinctive and stylish of contemporary realists.

All cut from thin sheets of aluminum and then painted in a billboard-flat, expressionless style, Katz has sought and found in these works a way to reconcile traditional illusionist painting with modernism, which has insisted that the inherent flatness of the picture plane be maintained.

In so doing, he has also devised a way to merge painting and sculpture. Most of these portraits of his friends and New York literary lights (poets John Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg, art historian Irving Sandler et al.) are free-standing figures, painted front and back and held up by a slotted stand on the floor, like paper dolls.

There are also wall-hung portraits of the same crowd, but here their oversize faces have been sliced vertically or horizontally into two or more segments (buy an ear, buy a nose or buy them all), and they are the coldest, most esthetically contrived works Katz has produced.

The best portrait (apart from two adorable doggies with their tongues hanging out) is "Laura," a cool but wholly engaging nude with dark hair and an indecipherable look. Katz sets great store by the fact that style is his only "content" (as with Warhol), and that nothing else matters. He has forged an indelible, unmistakable style, no doubt about that. But he -- like every other artist -- is far more interesting when he makes some human connection.

The show will continue at 406 Seventh St. NW through May 10. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays.