Human figures appear in representational art so frequently that new and exciting interpretations hardly seem possible. Even so, artists continue to render the figure, finding an inexhaustible source of inspiration in the body human. Three artists take over 1/1 Gallery with original, thought-provoking twists on the genre, infusing the well-worn form with fresh energy.

Betty Shelton's intimate views of modern-day bedrooms with their dishabille occupants offer the most traditional approach. Despite the artist's familiar use of draped nudes, moody lighting and luxuriant poses, these paintings are far from ordinary. The realistic precision of Shelton's technique, rendered in oil on paper, gives a creamy luminescence to her models and backgrounds. But it's the subtle, suggestive contents of the works that set them apart from merely excellent figure studies.

Shelton's customary backdrops of bedroom furniture and unadorned sheets include mirrors, dramatic shadows and window reflections, all of which add meaning to the deceptively simple scenes and hint at dreamy, surrealistic possibilities. "The Problem of Transcendence," for example, depicts a stiffly reclining, sheet-wrapped woman. A headless, tattered dress-form dummy at the foot of the bed is a clue that perhaps the sleeping beauty is dead rather than just dreaming. "Eternity's Sunrise" reveals the end of a bed supporting the crossed legs of a model; the rest of her body is invisible, outside the frame. Dead center in the painting, the impassive face of a blond woman appears reflected in a dresser mirror--but the woman casting the reflection is nowhere to be seen. The ambiguity of this vignette invites various interpretations and we are drawn in, hoping to find the woman somewhere in the painting's recesses.

Moving from the surreal to the bizarre, John Sorbie's pastels employ bloody humor to subvert expectations about figure studies. The artist's superb illustrational style, honed by decades of teaching college drawing, combines with a mischievous interest in dismemberment to make eye-popping works that are both magnificent and depraved. In Sorbie's pastels, mutated, mutilated and miscast figures confront each other, gather in macabre parades or substitute for more conventional characters. Two offbeat versions of madonna and child appear in Sorbie's "In God We Trust All Others Ready Cash" and "Virgin and Child": The first shows a whorish, distorted mother-figure cradling a monstrous and overgrown baby, while the second switches genders, with the madonna becoming a debauched-priest type. "Road to Golgotha" shows the mob that led Christ to Calvary; here, however, the figures are armless, blind and bandaged, yet still smiling. Reminiscent of Francis Bacon, but less absurd in their narratives, Sorbie's richly detailed works are a wicked pleasure.

Malabika Goldar's medium of aquatint etching allows lavish detail within her whimsical world. Goldar's prints lead the viewer into a strange, grey-hued place populated only by the penguinlike figures of turban-topped ayatollahs. The virtually identical black forms become versatile motifs, sometimes functioning as cartoons, sometimes as religious icons. "Master and Disciple" pictures an army of these orderly figures following a lone, madly contorted leader. "Invited Few" hilariously places a crowd of the exotic characters in an art gallery, looking at abstract canvases. The outlandishness of these images emphasize a political subtext; these "people" are less human than herds. Perhaps Goldar is lampooning Middle Eastern culture. Or maybe not: Despite their ethnic origins, these figures communicate universal truths about the madness of crowds.

Fans of the figure and of representational art will find much to admire in this elegant show--but there's also enough bite here to satisfy viewers who appreciate a provocative edge.

Betty Shelton, John Sorbie and Malabika Goldar, through June 18 at 1/1 Gallery, 1715 Wazee, 298-9284.