James Gouldthorpe's chic urbanites stalk the lonely night shadows of his paintings, haunted by the same gnawing fear that prompted Mary Potter to resurrect rusting tools and scarred wood to a new life as sculpture. Although their work, along with the work of Jenni Lukac and Edward Knippers, is intended as a group of solo shows, the four artists exhibiting at the Arlington Arts Center each deal in different ways with the underlying question of isolation in contemporary life. Their collective concern arose spontaneously and it would be our loss not to compare their individual approaches.

West Virginian Potter uses discarded objects and wood found in her rural environment to make sculptures that have a sprightly homeyness and humor. Her recycling of found materials directly refers to the cycles of growth, decay and rebirth so apparent in nature but largely absent from urban life.

The reassuring warmth of these works is in sharp contrast to Baltimore artist Gouldthorpe's "The Solid 'I.' " This mural-scale diptych implies the relationships between unsavory city sophisticates in a shadowy atmosphere of fear and violence. In a counterpoint to this chilling isolation, Arlington artist Knippers's biblical characters, drawn with the forceful drama of Renaissance-style draftsmanship, can look to a higher trust. The deep loss wracking the mourners of the slain Christ in "Good Friday" is overshadowed by the promise of resurrection. As in Potter's work, death is always followed by rebirth.

As if to prove that even in loss we are not alone, Richmond artist Lukac has created an installation overflowing with candles, wreaths of plastic flowers and thousands of photographs of people of all ages, races, creeds and situations. A tour de force both as kitsch and candid observation, "Votive Shrine" not only explores the urge to cling to memory, but also evidences the formation of a collective memory. The implication is that through shared need comes the formation of profound connections between individuals that transcend both time and distance.

Folk Art at Tartt

Folk artists are known for using art to express both isolation and belief. Like the artists of the concurrent exhibition of the Hemphill Folk Art Collection at the National Museum of American Art, the 22 artists in the Tartt Gallery's "Folk Art" show are unschooled, each of them drawn to art as a ready means of self-expression.

Religious themes abound, from the well-known writings of the Rev. Howard Finster to the newly discovered paintings of Hungarian-born Alexander Bogardy. The elderly Bogardy had gradually filled his Washington apartment with finely crafted religious scenes whose eloquence contrasts with the primitivism of works such as Georgian Leroy Almon's cautionary "Hell," a carved wood panel showing a small green Earth surrounded by the unhappy inhabitants of hell.

In the midst of the whimsical birds, animals and whirligigs well-loved by folk art enthusiasts are several works addressing contemporary issues. R.A. Miller's two American flags painted on sheet metal and Almon's "Mistakes," depicting the Challenger disaster and the explosion aboard the USS Stark, dispel notions of folk artists as living in some kind of reclusive bubble. Georgia Blizzard explores women's rights with her boldly rendered figurative clay pots. Marcus Staples, of Native American, African American and white lineage, addresses the impact of racial oppression on both personal and national identity in his frightening painting of an encounter between a white man and black woman in a Colonial field. Such candor cuts through the complexity of more sophisticated viewpoints, laying bare the underlying humanity.

Burris at Anton

Anton Gallery is also showing several folk artists in honor of the Hemphill exhibition, along with the paintings of Bruce Burris, which form an intriguing bridge between contemporary art and folk art. Burris's imagery and impetus are drawn from several years spent working with homeless and abused children in San Francisco. Despite his sophistication as an artist, this young Californian paints with the irrepressible intensity associated with folk art. His paintings explode with vibrating dots of clashing colors and anguished writing. Painfully aware of the depth of suffering found even in this privileged culture, Burris peoples his works with silhouetted figures whose broken bones, absent faces and exposed genitals are defenseless in an emotionally numb world.

Despite the nightmares these works represent, they also hold a persistent ray of optimism. Words such as "hope" and "feeling" are lettered into surfaces so animated that they seem to glow with a vital force. In "In This Light," a beam of yellow light shines on a drug addict, an alcoholic and a woman bleeding from her empty womb. The realization that people who suffer so deeply in such profound isolation can still yearn to live is perhaps the greatest message of all.

Fall Solos, at Arlington Arts Center, 3550 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, through Nov. 3.

Folk Art, at Tartt Gallery, 2017 Q St. NW, through Oct. 20.

Bruce Bullis, at Anton Gallery, 2108 R St. NW, through Oct. 6.