How to avoid a "new talent" presentation dominated by conventional thinking and tastes? Gross McCleaf discovered how to liven things up in midsummer by presenting "Four-Ring Circus."

This four-painter show features two artists, Matthew Mann and Jay Noble, who drumbeat for their surprisingly vivid expressions of anxiety. And that's a curious, even touching counterpoint to the trait of American optimism so appealing to Europeans, yet at the same time so maddening to them.

Mann's work, though finely detailed, has a bucking, headstrong energy, releasing a thespian side of his character as well as a concern with narrative. Shot through with dramatic touches that offer dark intimations, is some sort of bloody government overthrow under way?

These colorful fantasies by the Washington, D.C., artist exhale a mysterious aura. And although they convey no specific sense of place, there's a flicker or a nudge here for me of Old Spain's conquests and more recent events occurring in certain Central American republics.

There's more of the common clay of humanity in the circus paintings by Noble, of Lancaster. But these aren't pleasantly nostalgic scenes. Instead, it's mayhem at the circus and the home front, with a gorilla and tiger, no longer docile creatures, taking over control from their handlers, and an angry dog trampling a child in an otherwise upscale urban domestic setting.

Seemingly casually painted but done over an extended period, these semiabstract works bristle with raw energy, which serves well Noble's rollicking ideas.

Victoria Barnes of Philadelphia, daughter of well-known painters, shows domestic tabletop still-lifes that definitely have a tonic quality - most evident in her superb oil Deer and Polka-Dot Cloth.

Barnes favors a muted palette in work conveying a sense of the somewhat depleted abundance of certain well-worn, cherished tableware. Shapes that emerge in these paintings are surprisingly, and impressively, robust.

Dorothy Frey of Lancaster evolved from an open-air painter to another kind of exposition of truth to nature in her intense oils of trees. Sympathetically and handsomely painted with a deft touch, they have an air of almost solemn hush.

Gross McCleaf Gallery, 127 S 16th. To July 24. Mon-Fri 10-5. Free. Reception today 5-7. 215-665-8138.

Anniversary show

"The American Scene" at the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts is an "emerging artists" group show with a message.

Thirteen mid-career and younger artists from eight states are featured. The event celebrates DCCA's 30th anniversary by taking a look at the United States through the eyes of artists who've been concentrating on answering a question in their work: How do we see ourselves?

Subjects explored include the legacy of slavery and attitudes toward race (a major piece by Whitfield Lovell), immigration (Roger Shimomura), land use and development (Chris Ballantyne,, Todd Keyser, Meagan Shein, Scott Sherk), and infrastructure problems (Willie Birch, Amy Casey).

Also explored are what it means to be an American (Tom Birkner and Edgar Jerins), and the notion of shared culture (Robert Anderson, Amze Emmons).

Several artists examine more than one issue in this two-part display, which is divided into "People" and "Place" sections. And that's a unifier. "American Scene" gives useful outreach and a really satisfying jolt to exhibits that are all style and no heart.

Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts, 200 S Madison, Wilmington. To Aug. 2. Tue, Fri, Sat 10-5, Wed & Sun noon-5. Free. 302-656-6466.

Solo at Blue Streak

Philadelphia's Sandra Milner, in her solo show "Figures and Portraits" at Blue Streak Gallery in Wilmington, is a seer, not just a mere strategist.

Deep, dark silhouettes and shadows of figures inhabit these paintings in oil and charcoal. Is her art perhaps overly reductive, hitting the one note over and over again, and abruptly simple? It's in such directness, though, that her strength lies, elevating these ghostly shapes to symbol.

Blue Streak Gallery, 1721 Delaware Ave, Wilmington. To Wednesday. Tue-Fri 10-5, Sat 10-4. Free. 302-429-0506.