When we were children, life was simple. Good was good, bad was bad, and our parents always knew just what to do. In this third show at Arlington County's spacious, new Gallery at the Ellipse, Arlington artists Jerry Monteith, Lawley Paisley-Jones, Lynn Schmidt and Mel Watkin are presenting installations that consider the experiences of childhood through adult eyes.

Even the telling of truth proves to be no simple thing in Paisley-Jones's "When the Counting of Dancing Angels Is Taken Too Seriously," a 39-foot painting on corrugated aluminum. Like blowups of newspaper photos rendered virtually unreadable by their scale, its three monumental images retain an imposing air of authority. Their obscurity offers only a search for the truth about truth, whether in the media, which can so easily manipulate the truth to its own ends, or in our own frail abilities to decipher the truth from conflicting stories.

Monteith's "Swinging Bridge" grew from memories of stories about a swinging bridge near his boyhood home. Resembling a covered bridge with a long, curved base, Monteith's wooden bridge is large enough to walk through. The piece begs to be enjoyed: Stepping broadly from side to side, it rolls like a boat; walking in a careful straight line down the middle, it barely sways. It awakens the ability to play and to learn from play, with the reactive consequences of one's own actions swiftly felt.

Watkin's childhood pride in her colonial ancestors comes under scrutiny in "Black and Blue: Living Room." A worn rug and two chairs evoke the pride of making a home in a new world, but this furniture sits self-consciously in a room painted with pale blue and white diamonds and decorated with drawings of American trees and animals. A pair of armor-plated lizards glare at one another in a standoff as American as cowboys and Indians. Watkin's concern for Native Americans' ongoing struggle is made more poignant by the rows of diamonds, an Iroquois symbol for the chain of human friendship, whose paint drips down like tears.

In Schmidt's drawings and paintings, the potential for surprising relationships resides in everything from household items to archetypal myths. The associations between a volcano and a girdle with a glowing aura in "Cycle" are both comic and significant. Both exert pressure, both shape forms (earth's or woman's), both evoke goddesses: the earth goddess giving fiery birth or the goddess of beauty in her Maidenform. Schmidt's eccentric associations awaken us to the breadth of influences we encounter in growing up and living in this complex culture.

Hendricks at de Andino

Precision balance is the key to Alabama artist Edward Lee Hendricks's kinetic sculptures at de Andino Fine Arts. Like his outdoor works in corporate and public settings, Hendricks's smaller indoor pieces are gleaming stainless steel mechanisms, each supporting a simple sculptural form: a wing of blue-green painted brass, a section of cornice shaped from aluminum and sheathed in gold leaf. Wall-mounted or free-standing, each sculpture has a long, snaking counterweight adjusted so that the bubble of a tiny level near the pivot point is perfectly centered. A light breeze will set one of these works swinging gently back and forth.

If this seems gimmicky and a little chilly, like George Rickey's needles gone high-tech, certain details must be considered. Architectural elements, such as the cornice in "1990-I," recall the reverence for balance in classical architecture that so often goes missing in present-day design. At the same time, this piece seems to sweep away the apparent solidity of architecture, as the fragment skims weightlessly through the air. The beauty and insubstantiality of past cultures is also felt in two works featuring striped rods reminiscent of an Egyptian Pharaoh's crook and flail.

The undulating serpent form of each counterweight is an odd contradiction of the hard-edge precision of the work. As an archetype of the animating force of life, this serpent functions as a representation of the breeze that initiates the sculptures' rocking movement and implies the unseen forces that animate life in general. The physical balance it helps to maintain translates easily as symbol for preserving personal and cultural balance in changing times.

Bailey at Andrea Ruggieri

Mulling over the meaning of patriotism and the special interests that like to claim it for their own, New York artist Gordon Bailey has created a series of works based on Gilbert Stuart's familiar painting of George Washington, which he has paired with that most beleaguered of American symbols, the flag. Bailey collages photographic copies of these two images into spare paintings framed with textured borders. Elegant in black and white with only occasional passages of color, these works at Andrea Ruggieri Gallery have a sensuous, artlike quality, a satisfying counterpart to their conceptual nature.

With echoes of the Vietnam War mingled with the forebodings of Operation Desert Shield, the flag in Bailey's "Red, White, and Purple Heart" is smeared bloody red. Washington, a natural symbol of courage and sacrifice for American soldiers, is shown here drenched in purple, alluding to his image on the Purple Heart medal. But he is faded, his eyes somehow sad, as if the sacred truths behind the fight to preserve freedom have become tarnished and twisted by oil interests, religious conflicts and myriad power plays.

Bailey takes the flag and Washington as icons of America, focusing on their situation as symbols vulnerable to abuse. In "George as God," Washington's face is stretched vertically, elevating him beyond his position. Some would have the United States take on the role of an unquestionable authority. But it must be remembered that, in his wisdom, Washington himself refused to be made America's king, let alone God.

Four Solos: Installations, at the Gallery at the Ellipse, 4350 N. Fairfax Dr., Arlington, through Dec. 15.

Edward Lee Hendricks, Sculptures, at de Andino Fine Arts, 1609 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 300, through Nov. 24.

Gordon Bailey, at Andrea Ruggieri Gallery, 2030 R St. NW, through Nov. 13.