J.W. Mahoney was not one of those millennium worrywarts who spent New Year's Eve holed up in a bunker eating Spam. Instead he was putting the finishing touches on "Eternity," a group show he curated at Georgetown's Govinda Gallery that opened this month.

Mahoney, a local artist and curator, believes in eternity. He's not exactly sure what it entails, but he thinks it's a positive thing. The start of a new millennium, he says, seems a good moment to explore the idea of forever. "This is the time when we ask big questions," he says. "The show is here to offer responses to one of those questions, about time."

Mahoney isn't a person who gives straightforward answers, and the mostly abstract works in the show don't, either. "What you see here are human beings all creating metaphors for non-limited conditions," he says.

Caroline Orner's clean, spare triptych examines the infinite in terms of geometric shapes. Carefully drawn black triangles, circles and squares, all rimmed in gold, dominate the two outer pieces, while thick curved black and white lines joined together make up the bold middle work.

Douglas Kirkland's pastel-tinged photograph of a relaxed Marilyn Monroe is slightly easier to decode: She's a symbol of eternal beauty, and her sex-symbol status and mysterious death still have the power to captivate.

One of Howard Carr's three works in the show hangs on the ceiling. White script spells out the words "Upon time a story began," set against a gray, cloudy sky. Mahoney says this is the artist's take on the familiar fairy-tale opening. But instead of suggesting that things happen only once upon a time, Carr's phrase puts stories in continuous motion. "It suggests that time itself is the carrier of all our narratives," Mahoney says.

Although religion makes an overt appearance in a few works, Mahoney steered clear of Heaven and Hell imagery, the Bible's idea of eternity. "These artworks don't compete with each other theologically; they're fellow musicians in an open-ended jam session," he writes in his short essay on the show.

Mahoney, 50, says he started believing in the idea of eternity as a kid growing up in Jacksonville, Fla. "I remember hearing the word 'forever,' and I tried to get my mother to explain it to me," he says. "I thought, this is it." But the idea to curate the show came to him only last spring after he saw a collage by local artist M. Jordan Tierney titled "Eternity." ("Rigging," another Tierney collage, is also in the exhibit).

Mahoney wound up collaborating with Govinda owner Chris Murray in selecting the pieces for the show, dividing the works between psychedelic, colorful paintings and quieter yet resonant choices. The exhibit also mixes in out-of-towners like New York's Alex Grey, whose "Oversoul" depicts a man's head under a halo of fiery colors studded with eyeballs.

Mahoney is not out to convince eternity skeptics with this exhibit. "Whether you believe in it or not, it doesn't matter," he says. "I would hope a visitor coming in thinks it's pretty amazing that human beings think up this stuff. That's as much conversion as I'm interested in."

"Eternity," at Govinda Gallery, 1227 34th St. NW, runs through Feb. 5. Call 202-333-1180.

Art Bits

Martha Jackson-Jarvis was the sole local recipient of funds awarded recently by Creative Capital, a new national grantmaking and service organization based in New York. The majority of awards went to New York artists. Jackson-Jarvis, who had a solo exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery in 1996, received $8,000 for her project "The Garden Wall," an installation of sculpture and plants evoking history.

CAPTION: For photographer Douglas Kirkland, the actress Marilyn Monroe is a symbol of eternal beauty in "Marilyn IV."

CAPTION: You have to look up at the ceiling to see artist Howard Carr's take on the familiar fairy-tale opening.