She stares out of the canvas at the viewer--at nothing. She seems frozen in a moment of deep anxiety, preoccupied with her thoughts. Who is she? In a sense, she is the artist, for this is an intensely realistic self-portrait. But at the same time, this woman and the other individuals depicted in the work of New Mexico artist Diane Marsh, now showing at the Robischon Gallery, are actors in a larger drama.

Marsh's harrowing paintings are far from the stiff, idealistic poses of conventional portraiture; these intimate pictures hum with a sense of story. Large, glowing canvases cradle the heads and shoulders of Marsh's models (usually the artist or her friends), a soap-opera-style composition that amplifies the dramatic, overlit atmosphere. The painstakingly rendered faces reveal the myriad shades of pink, white, blue and yellow that collectively make up human skin tone; Marsh's control is so precise that we can clearly read the subtle flush that indicates the approach of tears. Snatches of poetry and tiny archetypal images float above her subjects' heads like ghostly thought balloons.

These stark scenarios expose lonely people overpowered by life--rumpled, mourning, panicked. While Robert Longo threw tennis balls at his models to make them writhe and grimace for his "Men in the Cities" series, Marsh uses the quieter device of prayer to generate moments of anguish, which she then reproduces with microscopic fidelity. (Pencil studies of the paintings, spare concoctions nearly as magical as the final works, also are included in the exhibit.)

In the oil-on-linen painting "Prayer," Marsh manages to capture both physical and spiritual existence with extraordinary deftness. The model (Marsh herself) is posed with clasped hands against a heavenly pink "sky," eyebrows wrinkled in concentration, face transfixed with despair. Hidden in the luminous background are a rose, a cross, the scribbled words of a prayer. In "Deer Heaven," she augments an oil-on-linen self-portrait with a prairie landscape and a poem, each enclosed in a separate section of canvas. This juxtaposition offers tantalizing clues as to the thoughts of the distraught woman on the right: Is she worried about the dwindling deer herds? Does she, too, feel hunted, as the words of the poem suggest? The nakedly revealing surfaces of Marsh's paintings provoke more questions than answers; the urge to know their secrets is irresistible.

Equally mysterious but blissfully removed from human torment, Scott Greenig's compact, ornate paintings complement Marsh's confrontational style. Colorado artist Greenig is also a master at representational rendering, but he exercises this talent by hilariously mimicking the sort of sentimental, mass-produced art that fills the decorating aisle at Woolworth's. Quirky subject matter and surreal effects, however, quickly elevate Greenig's work above the banal. The acrylic-on-panel "Animal Crackers," for example, presents the quaint zoo-train box familiar from childhood, abandoned and lopsided on a silver tray. At first looking like a droll joke, with time the image conveys a message about loss and the irrational ways our memories function.

After all this fervent attention to detail, Linda Herritt's huge, soft-sculpture installation--set up in the "Artforms" area devoted to experimental work--is refreshingly "PURE." (Ten-foot-tall appliqued letters that spell out the word are the major element of the piece.) But dangling rubber tubing penetrates the lace inserts in the bridal-white construction, marring the virginal cotton, and test tubes filled with semenlike fluid reinforce the sickly, clinical flavor. In counterpoint to the image-laden paintings in the main gallery, Herritt's satirical sculpture condenses wedding rituals down to a few bare principles: purity, order and menace.

Diane Marsh, Scott Greenig and Linda Herritt, through November 12 at Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 298-7788.

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Hart Hill