The Leningrad depicted in Emil Kapeliush's paintings, on view at the Athenaeum Gallery in Alexandria, is a city that exists largely in the Russian artist's imagination. His imposing buildings, rendered in precise detail, may reflect the city's Italianate architecture, but beyond their walls strange or wondrous things take place. Blurring the boundaries of time and geography, nativity scenes unfold in the shadows of tall buildings. Vast crowds gather in public places for we know not what occasions, ornately costumed in outfits they never picked up at the GUM department store. Even Kapeliush's street scenes, with their eerie lighting, have a dreamlike quality that gives this show the air of a magical mystery tour. In paintings such as "Composition on the Theme of Commedia dell'Arte," the elaborately garbed multitudes might be awaiting their cue for a Franco Zeffirelli production. And given Kapeliush's own background, his raging theatricality is not surprising. A set designer by training, he now serves as creative director of the Leningrad Youth Theatre.

"Leningrad: Venice of the North" is Kapeliush's first American exhibition. The title is somewhat misleading in light of the artist's approach to his subject, as well as the inclusion of unrelated material such as illustrations for a book of Russian folk tales and some uninspired drawings of nudes and beady-eyed fish. The title is reclaimed, however, by two landscapes, "City" and "White Nights," that are the best works in the show. Here Kapeliush discards his overwrought 19th-century romanticism, allowing the vast skies and extraordinary northern light to provide the drama for his landscapes.

Installed in the adjoining small gallery at the Athenaeum is a small group of works by five other Russian artists. The less said about these the better, with the significant exception of Vladimir Mikhailov. His sole offering, "A Rare Specimen," makes one long to see more of his work.

Michel Gauthier at Fota Gallery

Michel Gauthier does the kind of abstract painting that can lead an artist, if he isn't careful, down the garden path to decoration. At the same time his work, on view at the Fota Gallery, is capable of winning over many viewers. Even those who never saw a nonrepresentational painting they didn't hate may be attracted to Gauthier's radiant colors, the luscious shades of blue, rose red and yellow that seem to coalesce on the canvas. He thins some of these colors to the point of translucency, applying others in a multiplicity of layers. And then there's all that silver and gold leaf, enough of the latter to have kept a trecento Sienese artist in the halo-making business for a long stretch.

Gauthier, a French architect-turned-artist now living in Alexandria, is working on a relatively small scale for his third show at the Fota Gallery. The largest paintings are not much more than 3 feet by 3 feet. Perhaps, given the visual effects of the abundant gold and silver leaf, that's just as well. Larger might come perilously close to glitz, a line almost crossed by a work titled "Reflection," with its dazzling wide gold border. The most compelling pieces in the show are, in fact, the smallest -- a group of 10 "Iconiques," each approximately 6 by 9 inches. Here the judicious use of gold leaf, applied with oil and pigment to handmade paper, contributes to the jewel-like radiance of works that are aptly named.

For Gauthier, as for other artists in his camp, the challenge of pure abstraction is to produce work that is more than wall decoration, which may necessitate relying on a bit less.

Bob Aselage at Govinda Gallery

To say that sculptor Bob Aselage works with wood, the limbs and trunks of trees reclaimed from nature, doesn't do justice to his uncanny ability to strike a responsive cord. At the Govinda Gallery, these are small contemplative works, no more than a few pieces of wood joined together and oil painted. Not nearly as simple as all that, since much labor has obviously gone in to transforming these pieces to emphasize the beauty of nature's handiwork. Many of the hollows and crevices may have more to do with Aselage's attentions than those of Mother Nature, but his artful ministrations allow her to take the credit.

Aselage is a Maryland artist who began his career as an abstract painter, studying with Grace Hartigan and Sal Scarpitta at the Maryland Institute College of Art. One wouldn't be too far off the mark in saying that, in a certain sense, he is still a painter. Much of the impact of his work is derived from the beauty of the painted surfaces. The blue-greens and browns of "Honor," one of the larger pieces in the show, are especially lovely. A much smaller but equally striking work is "Tough Stuff," simply a tree branch with beautifully curved lines painted red.

Least successful are the large-scale "Journey to the Source" and "The Sounder," both on metal wheels, which lack the quiet lyricism of the other works. Their effectiveness might be greater, however, in more spacious quarters. Aselage is at his best in other works like "Dawn," where his mystical kinship with nature and its infinite beauty need only a few hunks of wood to come through loud and clear.