The subjects of Sharron Antholt's paintings are melancholy and funereal. Depictions are limited almost exclusively to empty wooden boats of fancifully archaic design grounded and abandoned on lonely beaches, and the shrouded bodies of anonymous souls lashed to rude litters of bamboo. A few scattered rounded stones, some in the paintings, some actually in the gallery, complete her compositions.

Ah, but what compositions they are. Antholt produces rich, gutsy images that recall German master Anselm Kiefer's powerful tableaux. Her new works at Anton Gallery come across as larger than they actually are, and moody, haunting and full of depth. Her use of muted colors, stark chiaroscuro shadows, and masses of dark glaze and varnish give her pictures a dreamlike quality that remains with one after one has left the gallery.

Whether these brooding pictures of Antholt's are inspired by mysticism, a sense of doom or just a healthy yen to produce dramatic imagery is unclear. But they certainly tempt one to try to fathom their purpose, to decipher their symbolism. Whereas Kiefer's tortured symbolic allusions to the Holocaust and historic German geography are virtually always made painfully plain, this artist's fantastic world hovers somewhere between the ancient and ageless heroics of a Scandinavian Edda and the classic concept of Charon in his boat ferrying souls across the River Styx. It is mythic rather than historic, sad rather than violent.

If all of this sounds depressing or scary, it isn't. There is none of, say, Francis Bacon's perversely gratuitous violence, or of Kiefer's endless Teutonic soul-searching and guilt. For all their moodiness and melancholia, Antholt's paintings communicate rather a fairy-tale-like sense of the mystic.

One is tempted almost to walk out onto one of her desolate shores, feeling the cool damp of the salty mist, hearing the shuddering plangency of the nearby surf, to scramble into one of her beckoning boats and set out across the water. Even the title of the show -- and the title of the largest work in it -- "The Smell of Ashes," does not detract from the compelling nature of the works. They are about death, certainly. But more about the possibilities beyond it -- something of no little passing interest to any fully grown, impressionable child.

'Water': Paintings at Mahler

"Water" is the fully justified title of a group show of five Washington artists at the Mahler Gallery this month. And it's quite a show, featuring among others the paintings of Joe White, Cynthia Young and Judy Jashinsky.

Especially rewarding are the works of two of this city's most impressive and inventive realist painters, Kevin MacDonald and Virginia Daley. Both are constantly reinventing themselves, honing and perfecting techniques, and sometimes abruptly changing styles and subject matter.

Daley's modest-sized landscape "Thunder in the Lake" is a real tour de force. This artist's ability to capture atmosphere and render broad, complex texture areas such as the surface of wind-blown water or wind-tossed leaves is magical. And her attention to detail rewards even the closest scrutiny. (Witness, for example, the distant but perfectly described heron flying for the trees in the last panel of the expansive "Deliverance.")

MacDonald, on the other hand, focuses his eye on the intimate corners of nature's vistas. Where Daley takes on an entire lake, he concentrates on a jetty with a boat moored to it, an inner tube adrift in shallow clear water, or the patterns sunlight makes as it sparkles on wavelets near shore. He approaches such intrinsically difficult studies with the eye and compositional intent of a color field abstractionist, and it works.

Cynthia Young is more interested in conveying the impression of water abstractly with overlapping transparencies of color and fluid motion, rather than attempting to portray it per se. This she does quite well, although one wishes just a tad less slickly, more gesturally. And Jashinsky uses the theme of water as a jumping-off point for setting up narratives concerning things that are in -- or might be in -- the water. She successfully evokes a truly scary feeling with her nighttime shore piece "The Goal," which is gravid with lurking danger and mystery, as though something dangerous might at any second slime forth from the blue-black depths.

White's "Amalfi Coast" series, flat, planar silhouettes of color on canvas, are decoratively pleasing. But next to the complex realism of Daley and MacDonald, these simple forms lack any real power to keep the viewer's interest long.

Stephen Ellis at Baumgartner

Baumgartner Galleries has a justly deserved reputation for championing and exhibiting some of the finest contemporary abstract art. But Stephen Ellis's weary and formulaic canvases do nothing to further this reputation.

Ellis paints -- or perhaps "manufactures" would be a better word -- whopping great rectangles of brilliant checkerboard colors. Here and there these severely geometric compositions are broken by the odd square of black or bright red, shifted out of sync just so.

At the kindest, one could say that some of these images are vaguely reminiscent of Piet Mondrian's later works. But the slick, taped and palette-knifed surfaces and the plastic-seeming hues rob them of subtlety. There is a kind of sterile, Bauhaus-furniture artificiality about them that makes them seem like so much distasteful wallpaper.

The prevailing convulsion of directionlessness in the mainstream art world has people shooting off in all sorts of directions in an effort to come up with something new. But when they strain to achieve originality, as Ellis so obviously does, spontaneity and honesty get lost. And no one can make worthy art like that.

Sharron Antholt: "The Smell of Ashes," at Anton Gallery, 2108 R St. NW, through April 19.

"Water," at the Mahler Gallery, 406 Seventh St. NW, through April 30.

Stephen Ellis, at Baumgartner Galleries, 2016 R St. NW, through April 10.