Riveting art is a rare commodity, seldom encountered in even the most prestigious museums. It is even more unexpected in an offbeat Midwestern nonprofit gallery.

Yet, on a recent afternoon, Maximilian Toth's 46-feet-long masterpiece "The Insurgents" mesmerized the few visitors who found it at Franklin Art Works in south Minneapolis. The sheer size of the thing is startling. More than 11 feet tall and 15 yards long, it fills one wall and is the only art in the room. Executed on a black canvas, the painting looks like a blackboard covered with chalk drawings -- huge figures brilliantly sketched by an expressive, energetic hand.

At the middle of the canvas, a man leans against a white door frame, blood streaming from his nose and mouth. To the right of the doorway are vignettes from childhood including a bird's nest, a bluebird house, adults and children smashing eggs, aiming a gun and so on. To the left are scenes apparently from a hospice -- an enormous figure with a bandaged throat clutching a morphine drip, a hospitalized figure, a man cradling an older, dying man in his arms. Everywhere the ground is awash in waves of blood red.

Even without a narrative explanation, the scenes are compelling because Toth's drawing is so vigorous in its sudden shifts of scale and focus. Radiating outward from the dazed man in the doorway, whose pathos establishes the work's gravitas, the canvas unfolds with cinematic dexterity. There are layers of memory and incident, close-ups and distant vistas, isolated details, aerial perspectives and long shots all woven together yet clearly articulated. Violence, bloodshed and death haunt scenes that are redeemed from sensationalism by their spare eloquence.

While the themes are universal, the details derive from the artist's biography, said gallery director Tim Peterson. Born in New Orleans, Toth, 29, grew up in Massachusetts and in 2006 finished an MFA degree at Yale University. Toth's father raised bluebirds, Peterson said, explaining that "if you raise bluebirds, you commit to killing sparrows." That's because sparrows invade bluebird nests, killing both adults and young. To prevent that, the Toths smashed sparrow eggs and shot the birds, as illustrated at right.

Later, Toth's father, a non-smoker, was stricken with cancer of the larynx and endured a variety of severe treatments including a tracheotomy and therapeutic regimes that destroyed diseased organs in an effort to save healthy tissue, as illustrated at left.

From these intimate, intensely personal experiences, Toth weaves a larger and more encompassing portrait of suffering and death. His title, "The Insurgents," alludes simultaneously to invasive birds, cancer cells and, metaphorically, to the torturous socio-political, religious, economic and class conflicts in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. While the latter are not illustrated, the "insurgents" title implicitly links the familiar scenes to world events. Both private life and public affairs, Toth seems to say, require hard choices, and taking sides inevitably leads to bloodshed. Toth's bravura treatment of these intense themes, and the image's quasi-religious design, loft the work into the rarefied company of Delacroix, Goya, Picasso and other masters who so urgently addressed contemporary events.

Info: Through May 24, free. 1021 E. Franklin Av., Mpls. 612-872-7494 or www.franklinartworks.org

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431

Elsewhere in the galleries Painter Glenn Grafelman, who lives and works in Bloomington, skillfully employs a lean vocabulary of abstract devices in his new paintings at Thomas Barry Fine Arts. Working with glossy streaks and stains of peach, blue, crimson and gray, he creates soft-focus background into which he cuts sharp-edged wedges and undulations in contrasting hues -- school-bus yellow, purple, black, green. However deftly done, these huge canvases seem as conceptually flaccid as blown-up spin paintings.

Info: Through May 17, free. 530 N. 3rd St., Mpls. 612-338-3656 or www.thomasbarry.com

At Circa Gallery, Minneapolis painter Christopher Santer continues his romance with freeways as metaphorical dreamscapes. His ribbons of concrete weave through idealized mountain valleys or past cliffs subtly striped with red-white-and-blue geologic formations. Sculptural letters punctuate the highways, defining the roads' escapist appeal in the words "dreamboat," "destiny baby," and so on. Conceptually indebted to Ed Ruscha's word images and Wayne Thiebaud's paintings of vertiginous streets, Santer's posterish paintings are as charming as the show's title, "California Dreaming."

Info: Through May 16, free. 210 N. 1st St., Mpls. 612-332-2386 or www.circagallery.org

Fans of the landscape studies of Anne DeCoster (above) and Carl Oltvedt (below) will especially appreciate their recent work at Groveland Gallery and Annex. The artists explore mostly familiar turf with their usual dexterity and sensitivity to seasonal light. DeCoster is becoming more Van Goghesque by the season, especially in her vibrant studies of the St. Croix River valley and her somewhat strained vistas of Alaskan landmarks. Oltvedt is at his best in watercolor and pastel renditions of watery meadows, rocks and a delicate wheat field, but loses his deft touch on some muddy barns and overwrought gardens.

Info: Through May 24, free. 25 Groveland Terrace, Mpls. 612-377-7800 or www.grovelandgallery.com