RICHMOND, JUNE 5 -- A painting by artist Carlos Gutierrez-Solana on the window of a Main Street gallery here was intended to be provocative, and by any measure it has succeeded.

Only too well, as it happens. City prosecutor Joseph D. Morrissey last week advised the gallery that the window image of three intertwined nude men, one of them in a state of evident arousal, was more exposure to the arts than many passersby wanted.

So for now the source of the controversy has been literally covered up. The 1708 East Main Gallery has taped white paper over the portion of the window -- part of an exhibit to lament the death of three friends of Gutierrez-Solana's who died of AIDS -- that Morrissey said violated Virginia's obscenity code.

But sympathy and outrage continue to pour out in a Richmond variation on recent controversies over homoerotic art at galleries in Washington and Cincinnati.

Gutierrez-Solana and Julyen Norman, executive director of the gallery, say they have attorneys exploring legal options and are seeking help from the American Civil Liberties Union.

"The work is violated," said Gutierrez-Solana, a director of the visual arts program of the New York State Council on the Arts. Although "the piece is supposed to grab you," he insisted there is nothing obscene "about showing how we are all made. ... This guy Morrissey is overreacting to the whole thing."

Morrissey said it was not his reaction but that of offended people driving and walking by that began the controversy. After hearing complaints, he said, he visited the gallery and decided the work violated the obscenity code because the sexual imagery was in plain view of the general public.

"The way it was presented, a lot of people would see it that didn't necessarily want to see it," said Morrissey, who has taken no formal legal action. "Nobody's saying it's not art, but under {state law} it falls under the definition of obscenity."

Morrissey said he would have had no objection to Gutierrez-Solana's work if it were inside the gallery with the rest of the exhibit. "That's a big difference from Cincinnati," where a local prosecutor instigated an obscenity inquiry into homoerotic photographs by the late Robert Mapplethorpe that were being viewed only by people visiting the gallery, he said.

The 1708 Gallery receives support from the state and federal governments, but the current exhibit -- produced by a dozen artists and entitled "Coastal Exchange III" -- was funded privately, according to Norman.

Satisfying Morrissey is proving a daily chore, Norman said. Several times since the paper covering the window's genital painting went up, people have come by at night and ripped it down.

The controversy has only broadened the exhibit's appeal in Richmond, a deeply traditional city that, somewhat paradoxically, supports a large and progressive arts community. Attendance has been five times higher than normal in recent days, Norman said.

Reaction to the exhibit along Main Street in Richmond's Shockoe Bottom neighborhood is mixed. Staring at the window from the sidewalk, resident Fred Austin said, "This kind of thing should be inside. ... I wouldn't want my children to see it."

But hardware store owner Irving Koslow, a few doors down from the gallery, said most merchants think the uproar is "much ado about nothing" -- an opinion he shares.

Gutierrez-Solana said his inspiration for the work came when three friends died of AIDS in April. The bold window painting, which also features various anti-homosexual quotes, is intended to draw people inside the gallery, he said. There they see drawings of nude men, a poem on the wall by Edna St. Vincent Millay, and a funeral pyre made of glass panes, each one bearing the name of one of the artist's friends.

"Many a man is making friends with death ... for lack of love alone," one part of the poem reads.

Gutierrez-Solana said his work is "about intolerance," and added that in that sense the reaction of Morrissey and other Richmonders, along with the paper covering, has provided an appropriate if unwelcome backdrop for his work.

"My reaction to their overreaction," he said, "is that it's become very much a part of the piece."