This is Fred Folsom in a basement gallery of the Washington Project for the Arts.

He is doing a Shepherd Park Restaurant bit.

He waves his arms like a disgusted bird trying to take off. He shrugs and flings out his fingers with the kind of resentment you see among America's out-of-work frontiersmen and tattoo cowboys, the beer-bottle bikers, the last crazed trailer-park boot-knife gasp of the kind of born-to-lose American manhood that always seems to be leaning against something, such as the walls at the Shepherd Park on Georgia Avenue at the Maryland line, back before it was closed by neighborhood protests.

The bit: "I wasn't doin' nothin', I get pulled over on Georgia Avenue, they search the truck, they find this Uzi. They say, 'What's this?' I say, 'It's an Uzi, my old lady's brother left it around, I'm going out and what, I'm gonna leave the kids with it? I know how to take care of kids. So that's why it's in the truck.' They say, 'Okay, how come you got four clips of ammunition with you?' They don't care. I'm being a good family man, and they bust me for four goddam clips, you believe that?"

Folsom laughs. He's heard these stories so many times at the Shepherd Park, the bewilderment of men engaged in the irredeemable flinging of themselves against reality, which is to say men not that different from the rest of us.

He used to be one of them, and now, at 47, he has been painting them for 11 years. Seven of his Shepherd Park paintings went on view yesterday at the WPA, a magnificent, startling, wildly human, blessedly unironic, beautifully painted, utterly American show.

Folsom grew up in Washington. He took art courses after high school and then he devoted his life to drinking. As he has said, "I let one thing go one day, then two things, and the next thing I knew I was 30 years old and making career decisions around 'McHale's Navy' and 'Gilligan's Island.' " He made a lot of them at the Shepherd Park.

You can see him in one of his latest paintings, a 10-foot-long celebration of life on the feather-edge called "Fight in the Shepherd Park Go-Go Club." He's the one with his face contorted like a boxer's on the back of the New York Daily News as a guy in a straw cowboy hat holds his necktie and pounds him with a left cross. Folsom's glasses fly, there's a flung bottle hovering over the platform where a stripper squats, naked except for black high heels, an interesting hydraulic heft about her. This is genre painting that draws on everything from the 16th-century Dutch to the bony, foreshortened hands of Jack Davis in Mad magazine. An unconscious biker type is reflected in a mirror as Christ descending from the cross.

One of a pair of dice shows one, three and five dots.

"One stands for one God," Folsom says, "three is the triune God, and five is Christ's number, for the five wounds."

You can see him in the incredible triptych "Last Call (at the Shepherd Park Go-Go Club)." He's the fat guy with tape on his nose and the lump of Brown's Mule chewing tobacco in his cheek. He has a splint on his left hand, which he's using to pour a bottle of beer in his lap. On the red-checkered tablecloth in front of him is a picture of John Belushi next to a one-dollar bill with its picture of George Washington.

"If you crop the pictures, they look exactly alike," he says now, which indicates something about his view of life, America and maybe the world.

Behind him, in the painting, under a cloud cover of cigarette smoke lit by beer signs, a nude stripper stands on the platform. She looks a little old for this business, or maybe the business has just made her look the kind of bitter and distant you'd never take home to mother. She is transfixed like Saint Sebastian by the stares of bikers, bureaucrats, ex-cons, an Army officer from Walter Reed -- 97 portraits in the 127 square feet of this painting! The stripper rises, even ascends out of the squalor, and in all her toughness she is transcendent, the symbol of hope and redemption.

And not a bit of irony. The beer signs are not "beer signs," and the dollar bills tucked in the ankle strap of the stripper's sandal are not "money." Things are what they are. When Folsom wants to throw in a symbol, he just does it -- a scale standing for judgment, that kind of thing. He loves this place, and he loves these people. He paints them in their ancient ambiguity, human beings trapped between the angels and the animals, knowing their foolishness and sin but too craven to do much about it. People like you and me, in other words. And let us not forget that the end of the road is never more than a car crash away.

There are seven paintings in the show, counting the triptych as one.

You walk down the stairs (past a self-portrait of Folsom painting a Shepherd Park painting) and see the fight painting, very red, with a 1950s comic book affection for drapery and detail. You turn right. And a whole world is on view, 211 faces in these seven paintings, and you have the feeling that everyone is here. (Even newspapermen have been known to hang out at the Shepherd Park.) Life! It's all so alive! When the nudes aren't transcending, they exult -- fling their clothes over their heads and strut down the bar. Two women beneath a strutter hug each other with a fierce, wry infinitude never, ever achieved by the official hugs of encounter-group gurus. The men laugh, brood, scheme, sleep ... an angry pregnant woman faces the wall while her husband uses the pay phone to call AAA, and he stares at the stripper. On and on.

They all look like they've lived. They look like pioneers in old photographs, the kind that make you wonder why people don't look like that anymore. These people do. They are pioneers, but the frontier is a century dead. They're at the end of the road, and this is the bar somebody built there.

Fred Folsom: The Shepherd Park Go-Go Bar Paintings, at the Washington Project for the Arts, 400 Seventh St. NW, through Jan. 10.