YOU CAN'T REALLY blame galleries for showing art that will sell rather than art that will stun; and yet the crop of shows inaugurating the '96-'97 season includes an unusual amount of strong (if not entirely stunning) work. Even more surprisingly, there's a thematic undercurrent--one characterized by a narrative sense of mystery and unease--to be gleaned from the work on display at Thomson Gallery, Jon Oulman Gallery, Thomas Barry Fine Arts, and Gallery Rebolloso.

          The paintings of Robert Perkins (at Rebolloso; 371-0544) and Bruce Charlesworth's photographs (Thomas Barry; 338-3656) inhabit the more playful realms of this territory. Perkins sprinkles his work with a plethora of odd signs and symbols: dots, diamonds, squiggly creatures, honeycomb- and molecule-like patterns, flowers. Given the rather realistically rendered banana in "A Proposal" (regarding the nebulousness of sexual identity?), it's hard not to see the red, elliptical shape above it as vaginal--especially with the man dressed in women's garb depicted to one side, smiling bemusedly. "That Which Is Between You And Me" has painted curtains patterned over with more of those quirky symbols, descending and ascending to partially obscure another friendly face. And "The Spirituality of Exploration" is a storybookish delight, with a man in a tiny, crescent-shaped boat floating to who knows where. Above, a blackened sky threatens, but it also holds a huge, golden, brooch-like object, more magical than any moon, that radiates a sense of benevolence.

          Charlesworth engineers a humorously hokey obscurantism in his color-saturated photographs. The white sheet covering the victim in a crime scene fails to hide its hooved feet and bits of hot pink fur; and a triptych of spic-and-span retro settings features gifts so prominently placed and seductively wrapped, it seems they must be booby traps. In a hospital setting (Charlesworth builds all the highly artificial, slightly off-kilter sets for his work), another unidentifiable lump of a creature, seen only in shadow, hangs in traction behind a white curtain.

          The figures in the paintings of Sean Connaughty (also on display at Thomas Barry) are more recognizably human, but not quite fully so. Some of them are downright frightening--especially given the eerie tones emanating from speakers built into one untitled work, in which a figure regards the entrance to a tunnel with tense expectation. There's light at the end of that tunnel, but little sign of hope in this, or any of Connaughty's work. Two paintings from his Things to Remember in the Wilderness Series portray solitary figures with bandaged heads, presumably lost; one turns his eyes heavenward as if for succor, while the other stares out at the viewer, his slightly crazed eyes askew.

          A similar feeling of poetic dis-ease permeates the paintings of Daniel Kaniess (at Thomson Gallery; 338-7734). (In fact, both Connaughty and Kaniess also have poetry on display.) The subject of "Uncomfortable Madonna" stands with her arms crossed and shoulders hunched, peering warily out of a black void. Nearby is "Stranded Man," a guy submerged on all fours in sickly yellow goo with no horizon in sight. Across the room, the floating head in "Bachar" catches your eye with his perplexed, worrisome expression--perhaps he's a victim of downsizing, or an SWM who's beginning to realize his irrelevancy. Like most of the figures in Kaniess's work, "Bachar" could be a character out of some bummer of a short story (indeed, another submerged-figure painting is titled "Cain").

          Duncan Hannah's Private World (at Jon Oulman; 333-2386) has a superficially nostalgic, European feel--many of these paintings are based on old photos or magazine pictures. But the more you look, the more things seem awry. The bright, flat light of these works presumably shows all, but winds up obscuring a lot: This is mystery masked by mundanity. "St. Martin's Church" is an innocuous scene lit subtly afire with tiny flashes of pink throughout; and the nine boys in a field in "Shirts and Skins" seem unusually frozen in their play. Other works emanate a slight sexual tension, such as one of a woman doing a handstand, caught just before her skirt falls around her waist.

          Whether they mine the mystery vein in a playful, poetic, or genuinely oddball fashion, it's refreshing in this tell-all age to encounter a batch of artists who are skilled at holding something back. (Julie Caniglia) CP

          Shows run through October 12; call the galleries for hours.

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