DAY-TRIPPING in Alexandria turns up at least three gallery shows of note.

At Gallery 4, Deborah Ellis is exploring the rowboat from stem to stern in her deft watercolors. In 10 years of doing them, Ellis has painted everything in the house including the kitchen sink, on which she did a recent series. What keeps her watercolors from being prosaic is that she sees from a weird perspective and comes up close to slightly abstract things.

Ellis's current obsession is a white dory near Penobscot Bay in Maine, where she and her husband own a summer camp. She watches and records the way the oar touches and stirs the water, dips out, then disappears, leaving whirlpools of color in its wake. She follows the shadow of the underside of the boat as it turns in front of her, and interpreting the colors very loosely indeed, captures its effect on the water -- stippled water, minor whirlpools and eddies.

She moors the boat to the paper with whitewashed New England light and examines it -- head on and foreshortened or from the side, where she captures perfectly the water's reflection playing on it. She sends her husband out in the boat, and he becomes an old guide on the limpid lake of a Winslow Homer watercolor, heading for the woods' solemn quiet.

With a green companion sidling up next to it, or lurking in the shadows under the trees, the boat begins to take on a personality of its own.

The Firebird Gallery's "Post Socialist Realism: The New Soviet Reality" is presenting the evocative paintings of six artists living in Moscow and Leningrad.

Aleksei Sundukov's "Endless Train" is an image of alienation -- expressionless subway passengers stretching back to infinity. The color is gray on gray. The compelling perspective draws us into the center, where we do not wish to go.

Gallery director Dennis Roach says there's no question that glasnost has helped the exportation of more controversial art of this sort. "I can't imagine they would have let that painting come out 10 years ago," says Roach. The paintings were recently acquired by Soviet contemporary art collector Norton Dodge, an economics professor at St. Marys' College.

It would be hard to live with Simon Faibisovich's work, although it's the best in the show. Paranoia haunts these everyday images of people in subways, buses and trains. There's a pervasive feeling of watching and being watched. The viewer confronts no one, but simply observes them -- sometimes as mere reflections in a window or rear-view mirror; only the bus seats are real. In these paintings, we view people from the back -- which puts us in the position of voyeur as well as giving a creepy feeling at the back of the neck.

On the other hand, in his bright paintings, Nikita Meshkov presents capitalism as a real horror show. His message, direct from sleek shop windows, seems aimed for us. He overlays shiny sports cars with photos of violent scenes. He paints a male mannequin wearing a dinner jacket but sporting a ski mask and a pistol; the overdressed female counterpart holds a rifle instead of a rhinestone purse.

This is the last show for the Firebird Gallery. In its seven-year existence, it has specialized in what director Roach terms "work by people who are institutionalized and debilitated." It will be closing January 23. The National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, an advocacy group which is upstairs and operates the gallery, will be moving then. There isn't room for a gallery in the new location.

As long as you're in Alexandria, you can file through the Torpedo Factory. There, the Art League, in addition to its monthly juried show, is hosting a gentle show of oil paintings by Dodie Petro called "Interior Light." She paints a world of soft light, wicker chairs and great-grandfather dandling a baby -- a household where clothes tossed on a chair back become subject matter rather than a matter for discussion. DEBORAH ELLIS: WATERCOLORS.

At Gallery 4, 115 S. Columbus Street, Alexandria, through January 9. 10 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday.


The New Soviet Reality. At the Firebird Gallery, 814 North St. Asaph Street, Alexandria, through January 23. Noon to 5 Tuesday through Saturday.


At the Art League, 105 N. Union Street, Alexandria, through Monday. 10 to 5 Friday, Saturday and Monday, noon to 5 Sunday.