SANDRA KAPLAN'S paintings may look like gardens, but there's more in that green growth than meets the cursory gaze.True, flowers bloom in her watercolors, and in the recent work, the oil paintings of the last few years, all kinds of vegetation thrives. But here, too, is the peculiar light of the Colorado high country or the tropical heat of Acapulco. Here, less conspicuously, are the formal issues with which Ms. Kaplan has been engaged for many years. At yet another level, to borrow a phrase from Dylan Thomas, Kaplan paints "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower." And much about larger reality is im plied merely in what has been left out of her painting. As we walk around her studio looking at the new work, the bright warmth of Kaplan's intelligence lights up the gray afternoon. She is aware but unconcerned that it is bizarre to paint gardens in the late 20th century. These are the forms she chooses because they reflect the reality of her current life in Colorado and, more important, because in these gardens she may solve the problems she has set for herself. Kaplan moved to Colorado from New York in 1971 and moved from the hard geometrics of her abstract paintings with glaring, clashing colors to more organic abstractions. Gradually she worked toward landscape - first as abstractions of mountains, and then in the depiction of sedimentary rock, and finally into full-scale representation. "I was trained in abstract expressionism," Kaplan says. "Painting was about paint and formal issues - color, space, form. When you are trained as an abstract painter, when you want to treat a subject in depth you ask, 'What can I do with red? How can I deal with light - with reflected light versus translucent light? How can I use this brush stroke? "In the beginning, flowers were abstract forms to me and the color didn't relate to the actual flower. Then I became more interested in the color of the flower as part of the integrity of the form. I was interested in shadows and what they do to form. Then my paintings started to be more and more about light, and I moved away from flowers." The watercolors, she says, were never primarily about flowers, though many viewers saw only the flowers. The viewer's sentimental attachments to the rose or the pansy interfered with the more meaningful issues of the work. Working from nature, Kaplan continues nevertheless to explore the possibilities of abstraction. Many of her oils now include abstract-expressionist paint-handling, even though at first glance what the viewer sees is realism. Almost-hidden paint drips remind the viewer that this is a pa inting, not a giant photograph. We are not to suspend our disbelief and accept the experience of the painting solely as an experience of nature. We have to see the human hand and eye recapturing a particular encounter with nature and with light. Kaplan offers us the opportunity to complete each of her paintings with our own perception, to rethink how we see, how selective our perception is, how we tend to focus on what is most important to us and then leave the rest unfocused, unnoticed. In several works, the eye travels to a point in the painting where the almost-photographic realism of the piece tricks the eye; yet the outer edges of the piece fade a little, fuzzing out in (apparently) unfinished strokes. "That's how people see," Kaplan remind s me. "We make choices about what we see. What is important to us seems a lot larger than what is unimportant. That's certainly how we remember." Memory, too, is part of perception. A large piece dominating the room, "Unabridged" (24 ft. by 5 1/2 ft.) presents a dramatic, 360-degree view of a lovely Japanese garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens. The piece consists of 12 vertical panels and may be broken open between any two of them. In the 19th century, Kaplan says, before the invention of motion pictures, panoramas were quite common. Sometimes they were many yards long, scrolled up and unwound for the viewer to experience a "travelogue." "Unabridged" stretches out in a shape, a large bridge dominates the scene, appearing to enter the viewer's space and inviting the viewer into the picture plane. The crystal-clear water and perfect rocks of the little pond beneath the bridge invoke the real. But on the rocks in one area, the painterly drips lie exposed to view. Abstract paint strokes further up in the painting remind us again of perception and memory and also the forces moving in and behind nature. Our own imagination is needed to close the circle of the painting. Kaplan captures the peculiar color of a brisk fall day in the mile-high city, the sun melting the recent snowfall almost away, the sky a chill blue, the colors of the trees vibrant, tickled with life and the change of season. The highly ordered Japanese garden holds a few disorderly surprises - like the abstract brushwork next to precision realism, the chancy paint drips, a hidden penny lying on a path, a garden hose left out in disarray. Between the man-made and natural, between plant life and the hard surfaces of architecture, between the plant-life's inclination and the purposed order of the gardener, lies the struggle Kaplan embraces. Contrasts figure heavily as subject matter in many of the paintings. Part of that has to do with texture, but a great deal of it is also an embrace of unseen order. "My paintings tend to look extremely organized," she says. "They are gardens rather than wooded areas. Yet I realize there is no way to really control nature, and I'm not sure I want to control it. Particularly in the oils, I feel the looser, more painterly quality of the brush strokes implies the uncontrollable in nature. Nature is not linear in its processes." The life force surges; much is unseen. Many of Kaplan's paintings imply that there is more to experience than meets the eye. One watercolor is called "In the Shadow of the Picket Fence." But it's a painting of pansies. Titles become very important to her, creating a tension between what we are told will be in the painting and what we actually see. A large oil called "Winter/ Summer" is a landscape seen through a window from inside the orchid house of the botanical gardens. Part of the power in her works lies in her large scale. Outside, the cool peace of winter snow. A life-size stairway of winter steel descends to the tropical summer blow - the painter must have stood on a little balcony. The indoor, man-made warmth is less appealing than the heavenly blue-white of the exterior beyond the glass of the window. Kaplan paints from photographs she has taken and worked up into collages. The collages are ingenious and the paintings refer in deliberate, sometimes surreal, fashion to the photographic distortion. Perspective is often just a little askew. We may be peering down at the step below us (as in "Jo's House"), even as our eye travels vertically in an arch to the horizon. All is meant to nudge the viewer into a deeper interaction with reality and an awareness of how perception works. Nature follows its own inclinations, and sometimes those are the influence the artist needs. Kaplan tells of living by a river one summer and experimenting with metallic powders in abstract forms. Having laid down the glue and the metallic powders on the paper, she found the result hideous and threw the painting into the water. All of a sudden she saw the water diluting the glue and the colors swirling on the paper. It was exactly what she had wanted. She retrieved the painting and dried it. "The river was doing something I couldn't - but I could recognize it," she recalls. "Here I am painting away and all of a sudden something else happens. It's humbling, but also exciting - knowing when to stop. When do you stick with your plan, and when do you decide to change course and go with something wonderful that's happening? How often does the plan get in the way of seeing what life really could be? So the process of painting becomes a process of discovery."