M.L. VAN NICE, now showing at the Franz Bader Gallery, has made her special brand of magic here before, most recently in an ambitious installation shown at Gallery 10 in 1986.

Titled "Rooms, Wk.Mo.Yr.," that large-scale piece (all gessoed white, and meticulously fashioned from wood, paper and found objects) conjured up four rooms in a boarding house, each occupied by a different person who was not at home, but whose identity could be discerned by snooping among his or her possessions.

It was no ordinary cast of characters, including as it did a musician-composer, a prostitute and a mad botanist who kept a carnivorous plant chained to a wall near his desk. One deduced that the plant ate animals from the tell-tale bones strewn on the floor around it.

A similar form of deduction is required to find meaning in Van Nice's latest show at Bader, where she has created another walk-through, gallery-filling installation -- this one seasonally pegged and titled "Anno Domini." One slowly discerns that this environment has something to do with religion and belief, a notion amplified by the use of architectural forms that suggest the arched walls and slit windows of a cloistered nunnery. Bins of hay in a stable-like room, along with a nearby carpenter's workbench, hint more specifically at the nativity of Jesus. It is not, however, like any nativity you've ever seen.

Free-standing, hinged walls -- all white -- define the spaces in and around which one can explore, searching for clues to the objects' meaning. There are stylistic hints in the Roman (and Romanesque) arches and Middle East window tracery and Arabic calligraphy, which remind us of where we are. There are also concrete clues alluding to prevailing beliefs: several figures of the Greek god Pan (on a chessboard, probably signifying the game of life); a tiny room that hints at palm reading, astrology and other beliefs and superstitions. There is a marketplace, where scales and coins allude to money-changers at work. A bit of knitting on a chair near the market suggests the presence of a real woman, who obviously planned to return. Could it be Mary?

There are humorous touches, but they take a while to sink in: In a scholar's cell, for instance, two stone or wax tablets with Hebrew inscriptions rest on a lectern. A note (also a stone tablet) has been attached to the corner of one of them with a giant paperclip.

Though more archaeological than religious in impulse, in the end this piece manages to rouse some sense of the context into which Jesus was born, a slice of time.But it also bends time to include the present: a sign signifying that there is "no vacancy" at the inn is up to date, and made of white neon. It is written in the artist's remarkable, cryptic calligraphy.

This is the largest and thematically most coherent piece Van Nice has done.

Invading Spanish clerics face-off Mayan gods, exotic jungle birds ride turtles and fantasy prevails -- as always -- in the paintings by Anita Bucherer-Godeffroy at the Patricia Carega Gallery in Georgetown.

Born in Germany, and a long-time resident of Mexico, Brazil and New York, the artist blends aspects of all of these cultures into surreal but endearing narratives seemingly inspired by the Brothers Grimm, but set in the Amazon jungle and starring an animal cast. In one scene, for example, a moon with bat wings hovers over an eerie castle along the Rhine. In another, colorful parrots and lush jungle vegetation portray the peaceable kingdom of "El Rio Dulce."

But there are facts behind some of these fairytales: In one watercolor, harnessed fishes pull a small boat across a lake that threatens to submerge a small town -- a pictorial fantasy based on the real fate of a Guatemalan town hit by an earthquake in 1976. There are also sly historical references, particularly to fat, invading Spanish clerics, who wear hats that look like windup thimbles.

Bucherer-Godeffroy works primarily in opaque watercolor on paper, though for this show she has also transformed several antique objects -- wooden shoe stretchers, carpenter's tools (levels and planes), and an ivory billiard ball -- into intriguing little paintings featuring fruit, flowers and birds.


"Anno Domini." Franz Bader Gallery, 1701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, through December 26. 10 to 6 Tuesdays through Saturdays.


A showing through January 2 at the Patricia Carega Gallery, 3251 Prospect St. NW, in Georgetown Court. 10 to 6 Monday through Friday, noon to 6 Saturday.