THE PHILLIPS Collection has imported some really cool new art from Italy. So cool as to be tepid, making one wonder what malaise has muted the genius of that ancient land of love and light and fire.

While it may be unfair to compare these laid-back moderns with the old masters, the exhibit's organizers specifically invite us to do so. These nine painters, sculptors and, uh, assemblers, are said to be young masters, passionately involved with Italy's historical and artistic heritage.

These are fiery fellows (and one woman), we are told. They're mainly from the south of Italy, where the sun heats the soul as well as the blood. They're into spiritualism, alchemy, yea, even animism.

Piffle. What these artists are into seems to be grantspersonship: the cunning construction of unobjectionable artifacts. Most of the works have little point and less passion, and they fade from the mind before you get back to the subway.

The exhibition, now midway through a tour of 10 North American museums, was put together by Independent Curators Inc. of New York. ICI is in the business of getting artists and grants together and taking them on the road. It's a nonprofit business.

ETERNAL METAPHORS: New Art From Italy -- Through Jan. 6 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW. 202/387-2151. Open 10 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday and 2 to 7 Sundays. Requested donation is $5 adults, $2.50 seniors and students; free for ages under 18. Metro: Dupont Circle, Q Street exit. Good wheelchair access.