Frank Gillette's somewhat esoteric musings on nature were last seen in Washington at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1980. The New York artist, who works in video, painting and photography, is back in town with a "mini-retrospective" at the Zenith Gallery.

At the Corcoran, he showed his Polaroid photographs -- enormous grid-mosaics built up from dozens of SX-70 photographs that function as landscapes and as taxonomy. These are both esthetic and quasi-scientific works, the latter being more in the spirit of those 19th-century scientists obsessed with cataloguing specimens of everything they saw. Viewing a Gillette piece such as the one in which he photographs nearly every red calla lily in a field in Aransas, Tex., is a somewhat similar experience to opening a drawer in the British Museum filled with row after row of neatly dried hummingbirds.

That work -- "Aransas Calla Lily Field, 1978" -- is in the Zenith show, along with two other SX-70 composites from 1976 and 1978. But much of the exhibition is taken up with Gillette's exercises in montage, collage and other combinations, including such disparate materials as photographic emulsion and paint.

Surface and color, rather than nature, is Gillette's topic in five early decoupages (the "Entry" series) done in 1978-79; the work becomes considerably more assured as he returns to nature in the beautiful 1982 series of large (20 by 24 inches) Polaroid still lifes. These assemblages, the most accessible work in the show, are in-studio arrangements of seashore forms preserved in an ice-like medium. The Polaroid process color and form with subtle exactitude, and Gillette has taken full advantage of the medium in these six pieces, in which horseshoe crabs are mingled with sea urchins, bones, shells, leaves and every now and then, as if to see if you're paying attention, a fragile butterfly wing.

Zenith's upstairs gallery is devoted to Gillette's newest work, a series of 24 miniature vertical diptychs that Gillette characterizes as being about "the esthetic ambiguity of multiple and fractured references."

The references -- cubist figures, a Taoist sage, sheep and a fallen archangel, to mention a few -- are indeed fractured as they peer from layers of heavily painted, scratched and collaged photo film. It's an uneven vision, slow to reveal itself to the viewer. Sometimes patience is rewarded; sometimes it isn't. Frank Gillette will be on hand at the gallery July 1 to show some of his video art. Call 667-3483 for details. Zenith Gallery is at the rear of 1441 Rhode Island Ave. NW and its hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. The Gillette show closes July 12.

Images from the South This month Martin Gallery has imported from the deep South a museum show that features the work of three young photographers from Alabama, Linda Burgess, Bob Marchiony and Sonja Reiger. Originally on view at the Birmingham Museum of Art, this flashy large-scale color work doesn't seem particularly southern. In fact, it looks more like West Coast photography, with its emphasis on color, large prints, painterly collages and documents of theatrical performances -- all of which goes to show that regionalism in photography these days is more apt to be defined by where you studied than where you live.

Both Marchiony's densely layered Miro-like montages and Burgess' theatrical diptychs and triptychs of masked performers reacting to socially embarrassing moments have their diverting moments but often seemed to strain for effect.

More consistently satisfying were Sonja Reiger's images of smoke, fire, flesh and glass. I was particularly taken with her large color Polaroids of nudes (sexless bodies more hinted at than described) combined with broken glass, metal and red earth, which contrasted the formal (a rigorous semi-abstract composition) with the fascination of seeing such mingled opposites as flesh and broken glass. Another of her works deftly combines fire and a baby carriage: The result is both playful and horrifying.

The Martin Gallery, 2427 18th St. NW, is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays. "Focus: Three Birmingham Photographers" is on view until July 6.