SOME PEOPLE look at "Art-O-Matic" -- that unwieldy, uncurated and boldly unpigeonholeable art exhibition-cum-sidewalk sale that first sprang forth in 1999 on the site of a former laundry and that is now taking place in an empty government office building on the Southwest waterfront -- and they see the glass as half empty. In their jaundiced eyes, it is a conglomeration of bad to mediocre art that only diminishes the few meager talents foolish enough to participate.

Me, I see the glass as half full.

That's despite the fact that, by any objective standards, the good is far outweighed by the bad -- with the ugly giving you a run for your money too. I love the raucous spirit of the thing, which traces its lineage here in Washington to such earlier free-for-alls as the 1985 "All-Washington Show," a salon des refuse{acute}s organized in response to the exclusivity of an "official" Washington exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and, earlier still, to 1978's "36 Hours," a day-and-a-half-long exhibition organized by former Corcoran director Walter Hopps in a G Street storefront dubbed the Museum of Temporary Art.

"Art-O-Matic's" palpable, can-do energy oozes out of every fluorescent-lit cubbyhole into every claustrophobic corridor. It creates -- out of thin air -- not only a fleeting and all-too-rare sense of community but, more importantly, an audience, one whose optimism holds out hope that, maybe this year, despite tons of evidence to the contrary, there will be a gem (or bargain) just around the next corner, hiding among the pictures of Santa Claus and the figurines of naughty nuns doing what nuns are supposed to have taken a vow not to do.

When was it ever otherwise? Any time you open a building up to every schmo with a hammer, a nail and a few slapdash canvases under his or her arm, you run the risk -- no, make that guarantee -- that much, if not most, of the stuff you'll end up showing will be garbage.

Get over it.

Like eating steamed hard-shell crabs, attending "Art-O-Matic" is hard work, with what some might call a minimal payoff. To a visitor navigating the work of around 700 artists scattered throughout two rabbit-warren-like floors of this "Dilbert"-esque world (the former EPA offices at 401 M St. SW, aka Waterside Mall), the experience is, to put it mildly, labor-intensive. In the final analysis, it may not feel especially rewarding either, at least not based on a strict ratio of energy invested to dividend earned. But if you enter with an open mind (which is not at all the same thing as lowered standards), you just might find a sweet surprise or two.

Permit me to be blunt: There are fewer than a couple of dozen artists here whose work I would be comfortable spending any amount of time with. And that's coming from someone who spent at least six hours wandering through the building on several separate occasions. But, along with the work that grossed me out, depressed or simply bored me I found art that surprised, delighted and amazed me.

Among the stops worth making was an installation by Ellen DiCola, a mixed-media artist who has transformed a dead end just off of the so-called Sculpture Garden into a trippy environment that alludes to the human body. Festooned with artifacts suggestive of intestines, dried skin and even coagulated blood, DiCola's room compels even as it repels.

Of the several commercial illustrators with work on display, the paintings of Jason M. Coates stand out, even with their infelicitous mounting on a clunky pillar. As he did at Signal 66's "New Talent" show earlier this year, the 1999 graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University has selected a few works whose surrealism is both disquieting and witty. The Agnes Martin-like paintings of John Adams and the graffiti-influenced work of Kelly Towles are also worth checking out.

Surprisingly -- or perhaps not, given Washington's artistic conservatism -- there is very little video art of note. Save for Renee Butler's flower-themed video installation (reminiscent of a poetic piece I saw last year by Cuban expatriate Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons at Baltimore's Contemporary Museum), and an abstract musing by Alan Callander (part of a strong, three-person room that explores the theme of "Remembering Pleasure"), the examples of interesting multimedia are depressingly few.

Don't miss the gorgeous display of fused glass by Andres Tremols, an artist new to the glass game whose abstract work betrays its painterly roots. Dramatically lit from below and situated in an all-black room, it forms a lush counterpoint to the cleanly minimalist/conceptualist installation that M. Jordan Tierney and Marcia Hart have mounted in the next office over. Armed with a paint gun and some simple clear glass vessels, the artist and architect team have turned the whitewashed walls, floor and ceiling into a kind of antiseptic chapel.

Also worth mention: The outsider-ish scrawlings of Matt Sesow; Lynn Putney's painted tiles; Tracey Barton's odd little drawings of mid-century modern furniture on paper towels; Nicole Dewald's "Forensic Novelties" made of what looks like found metal; and jeweler-sculptor Andrea Haffner's elegant wall hangings. And as for photographer Stephen Snyder's photographic "self portraits" of his foot wearing just about every color Chuck Taylor ever made -- I'm not sure what to make of your, um, oeuvre, but I'm glad to have had the opportunity to be perplexed. And to the unidentified artist who hung a disk of red shag carpeting on the wall (it's called "Shag," helpfully enough): Call me.

If nothing else, this year's "Art-O-Matic" is a pleasant departure from the last one, which two years ago turned the cavernous old Tenleytown Hechinger's into a user-unfriendly maze. While the space this year is precisely as homely as you'd expect a government office to be, the layout, based on a loose interpretation of the Metro system in which every gallery is named after a stop ("Fort Totten," for example, is across the hall from "Petworth"), is refreshingly easy to navigate. Just make sure you pick up one of those free maps they hand out at the door and follow the red tape that has been laid on the floor until you've had enough.

ART-O-MATIC 2002 -- Through Nov. 30 at 401 M St. SW (Metro: Waterfront. Web site: Open Wednesdays and Thursdays from noon to midnight; Fridays and Saturdays from noon to 1 a.m.; Sundays from noon to 10. Free.

Free public programs associated with the exhibition include a wide variety of events, including improv, cabaret, comedy, film and video, life drawing sessions, music, theater, poetry and dance. Consult the Web site for a detailed schedule.

Renee Feder of Washington admires Andres Tremols's "Agua Luz," or "Water Light."Robin Bell, left, of Washington and Monica Stroik of Arlington get caught up in artist Barbara Liotta's "Gikongoro" at Art-O-Matic.