In three days, the Dimock Gallery will dismantle Fred Folsom's magnificent obsession. Too large to fit in his Takoma Park studio, it will be lifted from the wall at George Washington University, rolled up and put away. With it will go the last four years of Folsom's life.

"Four years of painting, alone, covered with dust, talking to yourself, then all the feedback in two hours," Folsom scrawled on an invitation to the opening. "Now I know sort of what Wile E. Coyote felt like."

In an age when some painters turn out five splashes a week, Folsom, 42, has labored longer than many people keep their cars on one enormous work, a 6 1/2-by-19 1/2-foot painting of closing hour at the Shepherd Park Restaurant.

If it were a novel, "Last Call (at the Shepherd Park Go Go Club)" would be by Balzac or Dickens. Its 90 characters -- barflies, nude dancers, friends of the artist, historical figures -- sprawl and bluster in a swirl of continuous motion. And throughout the painting, as in the 15th- and 16th-century Flemish masterpieces Folsom reveres, there are symbols -- a broken knife blade, a salt shaker -- that tell stories within stories. Folsom calls the painting "an obscurantist's dream." It is his hymn to human folly, "a 127-square-foot valentine" to the possibilities of redemption.

Artists and bars are old friends; Picasso had Els Quatre Gats, Toulouse-Lautrec the Moulin Rouge and Manet the Folies-Berge`re. Fred Folsom has the Shepherd Park Restaurant, which he has been painting for the better part of a decade. "I think I will be doing the Shepherd Park forever," he says.

In its earliest incarnation, the restaurant, a two-story building on Georgia Avenue near the Maryland line, was the hangout of the Los Vagabondos motorcycle gang and whomever they were tolerating at the moment. In the mid-'70s, new ownership put checkered cloths on the table and a rug on the floor, and the bikers and drifters were joined by construction workers, employes of Walter Reed, postal workers, college students, venturesome suburbanites and an occasional pimp, among others. (The pimps, say former patrons, usually were hustled out the door before they realized what was happening.)

The restaurant closed earlier this year after losing its liquor license, a casualty of years of pressure from homeowners in affluent, integrated Shepherd Park. Until its last days, however, it stayed lively. There were drug busts at the Park, breakups and fights. In its dark corners, people hatched precarious plans. In 1977, 15 people were injured and one later died when a patron who'd been booted from the bar after an alleged racial incident earlier in the evening returned to fling a pail of gasoline through the front doorway, and a lighted match behind it.

"It was a place you could hide out in, where you could feel safe," recalls a former patron, who must have missed the conflagration. "But you had to get out of there before 2. You did not want to see who you were sitting next to when the lights came up."

At first glance, "Last Call" seems a straightforward tableau of raucous, repellent humanity. The Budweiser clock on the wall reads 2:30 a.m., the red-checkered tables bristle with beer bottles. A bare-breasted girl kneels on the bar. The television is tuned to an ABC News "Special Report," but most of the patrons are watching a small stage where a mature woman appears to be in the final throes of a striptease.

But the woman seems out of place. She neither preens nor struts; her eyes are downcast, her expression is grave, almost grieving. Her pose is reminiscent of Botticelli's Venus on the half shell, and the tilt of her head and turn of her wrists are like those of a ceramic madonna.

Folsom calls her the heart of his painting. He spent more than a year deciding how to paint her. He describes her as "philosophic, Hellenic, a centerpiece on an altar ... The expression on her face and the gestures which appear for a second to be one thing are infinitely complex," he says. "She's not something you look at and enjoy.

"This figure is armored, she's safe, timeless. It's the rest of the people who are up for grabs."

Especially Folsom himself, who appears in the foreground of the painting as a bloated, bleary-eyed Falstaff in a grimy green T-shirt. Although the room is awash in suds, most of the patrons are locked in introspective silence. Folsom is the only one who looks truly drunk. His little finger is in a splint, his left eye is a scarlet slit and his nose is plastered with bandages. As he gesticulates, he baptizes his blue jeans with beer.

Folsom looks nothing like that today. He is trim. He jogs. His manner is contemplative. His voice, as he sits in a Chinese restaurant a few blocks from his attic studio, is gentle. But the figure in the painting, he says, is an accurate representation of the 10 years he spent struggling with alcohol and other demons -- the years he spent at the Park.

"Some place after high school I let one thing go one day, then two things, and the next thing I knew I was 30 years old and making career decisions around 'McHale's Navy' and 'Gilligan's Island,' " he says. "I was a serious, committed patron, as far as my revenues would allow."

Folsom grew up in Washington, son and grandson of lawyers. His father worked for the Justice Department, his mother was a copy editor at U.S. News & World Report. Folsom suffered from severe dyslexia as a child; the school library was "a brick wall," he says. Writing was torture, and he became expert at cajoling teachers into letting him turn in book illustrations instead of book reports. One thing he could do was draw, and after graduation from Wilson High he went to Pratt Institute in New York to study commercial art. He drifted back to Washington after graduation, and spent the next decade taking occasional art classes, working odd jobs and watching his life disintegrate.

"If you ever wonder who those people are who stand and watch traffic ..." he says. "There was a time when I stood on the street corner, emotionless, and people driving by would roll up their windows and lock their doors. They knew there was something desperately wrong there, and that the main thing they had going for them was they were in a rolling metal box."

With the help of people he declines to identify, he righted himself eventually, a gift from providence that he describes this way: "For no reason at all people get handed a brand new life and other people wind up under cars." The experience appears to have left him with an indelible concern and curiosity about people in desperate straits.

"People who struggle fascinate Fred," says one friend.

Once he'd overcome his alcoholism, Folsom returned to the Park, curious about the hold the place had on people. "I would sit or stand against the wall ... I'd say, What in the hell is going on here? What does this thing feel like? Every person in here is totally isolated, encapsulated. The music is so loud you can't talk. There are moments of conversation, but it's all basically rapture."

He decided the Park's hold on people had something to do with a kind of tribal feeling, the drama and possibility, the simplicity missing from modern life.

Imagine, he suggests, a man returning from work at the end of the day. "He's pushed along by traffic, and thinking about how he got a raise last year, and does he dare ask for one this year, and if he does, will the boss replace him with a computer chip, and he pulls into the Shepherd Park, and suddenly, with the women and the beer, he's in a 'hunter-gatherer' frame of mind. Another two beers, and you're a hunter, and it's all about tribal hunters gathering courage for the fight, gathering courage in the limelight. Things are finally simple.

"The Shepherd Park is a place of infinite promise, and you go there, and the pounding music and the shattering strobe lights, and it's old. And there's a sign on the wall to keep it no larger than tribal size. And the chieftains are on the left side of the bar. None of them would let me paint them."

Dimock Gallery Curator Lenore Miller has been watching Folsom's work since 1983; she says "Last Call," which is part of a larger show called "Tough Realism," is Folsom's most ambitious painting to date, both physically and psychologically. "He has done more to explain the psychology of social existence than in any previous work," she says.

Folsom says "Last Call" is a religious painting, but dislikes explaining it more than that.

"It's not intended to pigeonhole anyone. I am absolutely an impassioned and disinterested reporter. Not uninterested," he adds.

Are his subjects lost souls? "I don't think so. It's an opportunity to think they are, and an opportunity to think maybe they aren't. What I've tried to put in each face is a humanity you can't just dismiss, even if you'd like to throw the scene away. I think if you took any of these people out of the situation, they could be Talmudic scholars, or people doing their bills at home. They could be grieving or holding a Nobel Prize.

"The thing I get a lot is, 'Why do you show this kind of person?' I think we all want to be able to dismiss everything that makes us uncomfortable. We want to package it."

Folsom wants to make you look twice. "I really don't paint people, places or things I have contempt for," he says.

He tries again. "If Christ got off the bus in Silver Spring, where do you think he'd go?"

Folsom says the painting may be read as the Old Testament story of Lot, who fled the doomed city of Sodom after failing to scare up the 10 virtuous men who could have saved it from God's wrath.

"I'm not pretending to be in the situation that Lot was," he says quickly. "That's sort of best wishes. When I sent that valentine, I sent it to myself, too.

"What I'm trying to do is ride the rim on yin and yang. You go back and forth, between 'This is all right' and 'This is really awful.' "

Folsom's first large painting of the Park was a 4-by-8-foot piece called "Sunday in the Park." It was more antic, less contemplative, dominated by a cavorting young go-go dancer being ogled by carousing drinkers. At the opening at Gallery K in 1984, Folsom remembers, half of the crowd judged the scene "disgusting," and the other half took one look and cried "Paaarrty!"

"Fortunately," he says, "no one compared notes. If you have a simple view {of the picture}, it's because you've decided not to look at it. It's much easier to have your head in the sand, but the problem with that is that when you get kicked in the butt because your head is in the sand, it hurts worse."

Folsom lives in Takoma Park with his wife Rose, a calligrapher. He works doggedly and tries to keep social engagements to a minimum. And he makes frequent trips to Washington art museums for inspiration.

"I look at the old paintings a lot," he says. "I go down {to the National Gallery} and look at Vermeer and Rembrandt two times a week. I've been doing that for 10 years. I hate to say this, but I'm not especially interested in art after the 16th century."

The numerous historical figures scattered in the crowd at "Last Call," curator Miller speculates, are Folsom's way of acknowledging his debt to other artists and museums. In the lower left-hand corner, for example, he has included Blaise Pascal, French philosopher and inventor of the barometer, who sits surrounded by beer bottles, chin in hand. "I saw his face in a sculpture at the Louvre," Folsom says. At a nearby table, a fat-cheeked girl from Manet's "The Plum" blows cigarette smoke into the face of contemporary Washington artist Rebecca Davenport. Davy Crockett, in a pose taken from the National Portrait Gallery, sits over by the go-go stage.

The painting also has many local figures -- friends of Folsom's from the Washington art scene and his wilder days. In the foreground, with long flashlight, is retired D.C. police officer Jim Money. Slumped on the extreme left, cigarette drooping, is the late Danny Robeson, also known as "St. Danny of Takoma," a one-time St. Elizabeths patient who ran a local halfway house. Herb White, Washington restaurant owner and arts patron, can be seen in the center background. George Washington University Prof. Doug Teller, art photographer Joel Breger, playwright Robert Wilson, art critic Michael Welzenbach and Washington glass blower Jerry Haveneck also appear. The denim-clad Margettis brothers, Pete and Mike, a video equipment salesman and bus driver, respectively, flank Folsom in the foreground. And Folsom's sister-in-law and her husband show up in the right-hand corner. She, pregnant and wearing a raincoat, stares stonily at a St. Pauli Girl poster while her husband, eyes fixed on the stage, makes an emergency call to AAA.

Folsom is fond of symbols, both classical and contemporary. The broken hacksaw blade on the table in the foreground, he says, represents tools in disuse. He juxtaposes a small post card of comedian John Belushi, who died of a drug overdose, with a folded dollar bill. At the next table, a balding man lights a cigarette in the candle glass. The candle lights up his face, turning the hair on his temples into satanic horns.

In the back of the room an old man wearing dark glasses gapes blindly, head cocked; in a mirror on the opposite side of the room, his face is reflected as a death's head. The salt in the overturned shaker on a table in the left foreground is an ancient symbol for royal virtue. All of the wristwatches in the painting are Omega, Folsom says, the last letter of the Greek alphabet and the symbol of the end.

Folsom says he has been painting seriously for only 12 years now. "I did a lot of slapping and smearing around for a long time, but I wasn't very satisfied," he says. "The real career objective of the arts is -- I mean, you're basically in a career situation where you can wear jammies to work and spend your days trying to figure out how to rock people emotionally."

For that, he needs solitude. "People say, 'What do you do for fun?' Well, I figure out where all my friends are and go someplace else."

Folsom has exhibited up and down the East Coast, and has paintings in private collections. His fondest hope is that "Last Call" will find its place in a Washington museum. Until then, it will stay in storage, out of view.

"Last Call" is so large that he never saw the three panels all together until last month when the painting was hung at the Dimock.

"When I saw it for the first time, I found myself thinking, it says exactly what I wanted it to say, it's exactly right ...

"If you look at the whole painting, you won't be optimistic, but if you look at the individual faces, you can be optimistic as you want.

"Remember, Lot said, finally, how about saving Sodom for the sake of one single good man? I forget what happened, but it ended up that God slam-dunked Sodom anyway," he says, smiling. "That's why I say I'm very hopeful, but I'm not optimistic."