By Ferdinand ProtzmanSpecial to The Washington PostThursday, January 27, 2000; Page C1Three wooden figures--all born of a back injury, boredom and a chain saw--are the most obvious revelation emerging from the myriad layers of meaning in Greg Hannan's stark, darkly beautiful exhibition of new paintings and sculpture at Numark Gallery. They are the first carvings the 50-year-old artist has ever made, and they are exceptional.Hannan discovered his carving talent in Quebec a couple of years ago during a residency funded by a National Endowment for the Arts International Grant. He was also recuperating from back surgery and was bored with being unable to lift anything heavier than the Sunday newspaper.Although he was still wearing a rigid brace, Hannan wanted to do something physical and found he could sit in a chair while holding a chain saw. He began shaping a chunk of sugar maple with the saw and then finished it with carving tools owned by the residence. Carving proved to be a natural gift.After the residency, Hannan kept carving at his fishing shack in Nova Scotia. The second, third and fourth pieces he ever made, a trio of burly male figures, are now trudging in a line through the gallery's front room."Commuter," Hannan's second carving, leads the way. He's a grumpy fellow in a fedora and raincoat with a sackful of heads slung over one shoulder. Behind him is "Pierrot," a figure named after the French clown, wearing a ruffled collar and pointy hat and carrying the moon on his back, followed by "The Melon Thief." The latter title comes from a Japanese noh play. In this case, it's applied to a decapitated figure carrying a round ball, symbolizing his head and the world, in his hands.The show is also titled "Commuter." Welcome to the workweek.The quality of the carving is amazing. The figures' garments drape perfectly. The men are powerful and kinetic. They lean forward from the waist, knees bent, as if walking into a stiff wind.Even more impressive is the way the carvings serve Hannan's intellectual and aesthetic purposes. He is, by nature, an inquisitive artist, relentlessly investigating the psychology, physiology and pathology of human existence. There's a story behind every piece he makes, usually a straightforward narrative that follows a physical or metaphysical thread from reality into the realm of art.No one but Hannan really knows these stories or can grasp all the levels of meaning he puts into each piece. Works that look simple, such as his paintings of the radar reflectors that top the masts of fishing boats, are actually filled with symbolism. The reflectors' colors tell which family each boat belongs to, and the letters and numbers are radio call letters.On a metaphorical level, the paintings are about departing and returning and the systems we use to find our way home when the weather turns rough. By implication, they suggest the watery death that awaits when the forces of nature overpower man's systems.