Wayne Edson Bryan is to American painting what Rod Serling was to American television: an idiosyncratic, iconoclastic wizard obsessed with examining every nook and cranny of the yawning gap between appearance and reality in our society.

In his television series "The Twilight Zone," Serling pilloried the greed, pettiness and bigotry beneath the shiny facade of America's postwar prosperity and military might. In Bryan's exhibit at Gallery K, the artist presents the notion of human perfectibility as a cynical farce written by ad agencies, market researchers and media manipulators. He does so by creating what look to be perfectly systematic paintings that actually build upon and celebrate defects.

Bravura is the only word to describe Bryan's exhibition. The 12 enamel-on-panel paintings are, in conception and execution, smart, sophisticated and kinetic, the most mature, assured work of his career. They seamlessly combine layers of paint featuring the repetitive patterns of geometric abstraction with bits and pieces of representational imagery ranging from Sung Dynasty magic diagrams to a PET scan of the human brain.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the show is the way Bryan explores the longing for perfection that plagues the American psyche by using some of the same techniques--such as the use of magnetic, sensuous colors and repeated glimpses of key images--that corporations use to manipulate the public's tastes and desires.

To display his new works, Bryan turned the gallery into an installation worthy of an upscale shopping mall by painting the walls pink, a hue that is echoed in each painting. The paint job makes the normally austere space seem warm and welcoming. That feeling extends to the pictures themselves. Their colors are bright and appealing, the imagery clean and recognizable. The surface of each painting is smooth, glossy and beckons like a mirror.

Look into it, however, and that magazine-cover appeal and primped perfection dissolves into a welter of defects. Everything, even the images that look computer-generated, was painted by hand. There isn't a flawless line or pristine patch of pigment anywhere to be found. To heighten that effect, Bryan ran a power sander over the paintings, allowing the underlying layers of pigment to surface in patches, pools and swirls. In a significant change from his previous work, he pared down the number of paint layers and packed less imagery into each picture.

The combination of fewer layers, less imagery and the use of metal flake enamel gives the paintings remarkable depth. Some of them appear to be almost three-dimensional, as if the images were encased in glass. "Tao Hacker" looks like a giant computer chip lying on a bed of leaves that is floating on the still surface of a deep, dark pond.

In another significant change, Bryan has made several multi-panel paintings, a format that enables him to create larger works. One is "Uplink," which has as its central feature a large panel containing imagery taken from Jodi.org, the Web site of Internet artists. That notion of linking up with the information superhighway is offset by a smaller panel at the bottom of the picture, which shows a stone bridge linking the banks of a stream.

The idea that systems and computers are the ultimate expression of modern man's obsession with perfection can also be seen in "Dancing Star," a stunning painting in six panels. In it, the image of the human brain morphs from panel to panel into a tree, an Easter egg and a PET scan showing cerebral activity. The painting's title derives from a quote by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: "A man must have chaos within him to be able to give birth to a dancing star."

Bryan's painting is a superb expression of that idea and a visual ode to the imperfectibility of mankind. The pace, pressure, glitz and hype of life on the threshold of a new millennium, the weirdness of defining ourselves by our consumer spending, the development of light-speed communications that don't necessarily bring us closer together are all rooted in an inherently imperfect place, the human mind. Like Serling before him, Bryan goes beneath society's surface and takes a close look at the signs and wonders in the vast gray area that is, if sometimes strange and horrible, always a perfectly fascinating place. Then he paints them.

Jody Mussoff Portraits A new batch of Jody Mussoff's unique colored-pencil portraits are on display on the second floor of Gallery K, along with ceramics she has painted.

While Mussoff's style is instantly recognizable, these new drawings seem more intense than those in her previous exhibition. That intensity emanates first and foremost from the eyes of the subjects, who are mostly composites created in her mind. In the past, her people often were gazing off into middle distance, as if staring out the window. Now they are looking right at the viewer with a gaze that is mesmerizing and a bit intimidating.

Her portraits are rarely straightforward depictions and these are no exception. Mussoff likes to toy with notions of feminine beauty and often works art-historical references and whimsy into her drawings. For example, the riveting gaze of a beautiful, dark-haired woman has a smoldering suggestiveness to it. Then the viewer looks down and sees that she's wearing a necklace made from tiny heads of young women. After the flinch, one doesn't know whether to laugh or not. But as is always the case with her work, it's very hard to look away.

Wayne Edson Bryan and Jody Mussoff at Gallery K, 2010 R St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.

CAPTION: Wayne Edson Bryan's "Uplink" looks behind the shiny facade of modern life and finds an imperfect framework.