BEADWORK isn't just something kids do at summer camp. Beadworkers are honored in virtually every culture from the Arctic to Africa and, as shown by a glittering new exhibit at the Renwick Gallery, many American artists recently have turned to serious beadwork.

Well, not all that serious. One of the charms of beads is that they lend themselves to humor and lightheartedness, such as Larry Fuente's "Game Fish," the standout piece among the 44 contemporary works by 12 artists. Fuente crafted his life-size sailfish, wall-mounted in trophy fashion, from a dozen sizes and varieties of beads and hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of such other found items as:

Darts, dice, dominoes, dolls, drawer pulls, pool balls, picnic cutlery, poker chips, puzzles, pink flamingo swizzle sticks, buttons, badminton birdies, alphabet blocks, bowling trophies, toy cars, combs, coins and yo-yos.

Sherry Markovitz creates an entirely different sort of trophy by covering deer and elk heads with fine beadwork in antic and inventive patterns that invite contemplation while suggesting hallucination.

At the far end of the range in both size and subject are feminist Joyce Scott's neckpieces -- not necklaces -- which go beyond consciousness-raising to hair-raising as they depict black music, street life and rape.

More traditional and subtle variations on sexual themes, along with anxiety, fear and religion, are explored in the elegant but alarming necklaces created by Mimi Holmes.

Buster Cleveland achieves both intellectual and physical depth by sinking his bead-bedecked Chairman Mao icons at various levels of clear plastic in traditional picture frames. The approach is exuberant, not to say glitzy, yet the effect is very like that of solemn traditional iconography.

It's another dazzling Renwick show, bright and busy as a circus but with an underlying aesthetic complexity that mocks the mythical boundary between art and craft.