Renowned performance artists Holly Hughes and Tim Miller were ticked. They found out yesterday afternoon that the National Endowment for the Arts had turned down their appeals of a decision to deny them and two others grant money.

And at a fund-raiser last night at the Washington Project for the Arts, they let the crowd of 200 know just how ticked they were.

"The mind of John Frohnmayer is a mysterious thing," Hughes said of the NEA chairman. "I've been unable to locate it, actually. So I can't possibly understand it."

Miller said the latest decision "was what I expected. I don't think people can go through that kind of political firestorm and then change their mind."

In a letter received yesterday by the Center for Constitutional Rights, the legal group representing the four artists, an endowment official wrote that "there are no grounds on which to entertain reconsideration" of the grant applications.

Center staff attorney David Cole disagreed. "The fundamental issue is that Frohnmayer rejected these artists not on artistic grounds, but because of the political and sexual nature of their works," he said. "This is an impermissible reason for nonfunding, under both the NEA statute and the First Amendment."

The endowment has given no substantive reasons for its denial of the grants.

Last night the artists said they are considering suing the endowment on constitutional grounds.

Hughes believes that she and the other performance artists "were rejected because of political realities rather than artistic merit, and that goes completely against the NEA charter. John Frohnmayer has been repeatedly invited to my performances and he has refused to attend."

In her monologue last night she didn't spare Sen. Jesse Helms, a leader of the congressional attack on federal funding of "offensive" art.

"Jesse Helms is the Amazing Kreskin of politics," she said. "He doesn't have to see these things. He knows they're junk."

She talked about the real-life Jesse Helms museum, being built at his alma mater in North Carolina with funding from the Philip Morris Cos. In her version of the museum -- she called it "Helms World" -- the exhibits "will have books with pages missing. Cases of Liquid Paper and Wite-Out stacked up, all those 2 Live Crew albums you could never hear."

"The board of directors would be made up of unborn fetuses," she said. "Enjoy Helms World. It's a treat for the entire dysfunctional family."

All four performance artists -- Hughes, Miller, Karen Finley and John Fleck -- who had their NEA grants vetoed were invited to last night's $35-a-head benefit for the National Campaign for Freedom for Expression and the National Association of Artists' Organizations. Finley couldn't make it. Fleck was held up at the airport.

When the pixieish Hughes, wearing a periwinkle baby-doll dress and a hennaed Nell Campbell bob, arrived, she was accosted not by the press, not by her fans, but by WPA folks. "She's got the corkscrews," yelped one.

So she did. She reached in her big canvas bag and, presto, pulled out two.

As most of the guests, some rather eccentrically dressed in the spirit of the Jetsons, milled around, scarfing sushi and chicken sate' and fanning themselves with fliers, Miller took the stage in the back of the second-floor gallery and gave a glimpse into about 40 curious souls of what his art is all about.

In his monologue, "Civil Disobedience Weekend," Miller described in terms that cannot be printed here the play-by-play happenings of 24 rebel artist types who'd been arrested by "the Federal Police."

"We stood there, bicep to bicep, ego to ego," he said. "And they put those handcuffs on me so tight. So deliciously tight ...

"They said, 'Men in one cell. Women in the other. No talking. But communicate as much as you want.' "

And, he said, they did. Then he described, in glowing detail, a homosexual orgy.

When their weekend was over, Miller said, and they were released from jail, the artists were pleased to find that George Bush had been exiled to Baghdad and "John Frohnmayer has been successful in the search for a spine transplant."

Outside a group of protesters from Act Up DC shoved fliers into arriving guests' hands and chanted "Boycott Marlboro cigarettes! Boycott Miller Beer! The WPA are hypocrites!"

They blast Philip Morris, which makes Marlboro and Miller, as one of Jesse Helms's biggest campaign contributors. The company also donated $50,000 last year to the WPA. And, said the protesters, although the WPA supports artists on Helms's "blacklist," it will not denounce the senator or endorse the product boycott.

"This particular event seemed particularly hypocritical," said Act Up DC member Peter Thompson, standing on the front steps of the gallery, "since this fund-raiser is honoring the people who were rejected by Jesse Helms. The WPA is placing their money over the artists."

Just then, a dapper young man came out on the steps to have a cigarette. He pulled out a pack of Marlboros and fired one up.

"Marlboro smoker!" they shouted angrily.

"Oh, be quiet," he shot back, in a refined, European accent.