"Post-American L.A.," a nine-artist exhibition at the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica, is definitely not baseball, hot dogs and apple pie.
But there's nothing un-American about the spunky constellation of accessible images and objects that Pilar Tompkins, curator of the Claremont Museum of Art, has brought together.
All embody an ethos of make-do adaptation of scrappy, make-ends-meet survivalism that is both dignified and generous. Most put a high priority on good old American ingenuity, embracing its clear-eyed pragmatism and defiant optimism. The stubborn insistence that every individual matters drives the show, which is fueled by the conviction that officialdom will not take care of you and kicked into high gear by the idea that you had better get used to doing so yourself, along with as many compatriots as you can muster.
Vincent Johnson's poster-size montages of typically Korean and Mexican foods, costumes and pastimes suggest that the U.S. is not a single melting pot but a big spread of pots people dip into and out of, slowly mixing the various stews.
A similar sense of touristic sampling takes shape in Chen Shaoxiong's slide-show-style video, its washy drawings of big-city life taking visitors on a perfectly pleasant trip that keeps things breezily impressionistic.
The problems that crop up when loads of folks rub shoulders and money runs short are hinted at by Glenn Ligon's mural-size silk screen of a mass of hands and arms, all raised to the sky. The black-and-white image was probably shot at a concert or sporting event, its passionate fans cheering wildly. But the absence of faces and background information hints at something more sinister, perhaps an angry mob, mass arrest or sea of people in the wake of a disaster, awaiting insufficient assistance.
The gap between the haves and have-nots takes poignant shape in Adrian Paci's video of a small crowd of people left stranded on a portable stairway on an airport's runway. As jumbo jets taxi past and take off, it becomes clear that these stoic folks are going nowhere, despite their desire to get away.
Carolina Caycedo pushes all sorts of buttons in "Mexicamericana," an 8-by-5-foot nylon flag that fuses the red and white stripes of the U.S. flag with the central emblem, a bird vanquishing a snake, of Mexico's flag.
Without taking sides, her hybrid flag fantasizes about a mongrel super-state that goes far beyond benign ideas about cultural blending.
Hugo Hopping's tasteful arrangement of wooden bookshelves, two photos and small painting is too concerned to look like serious art to make meaningful links to the world beyond the gallery.
The opposite problem undermines Sandra de la Loza's audio installation.
"The Revolution Will . . . " is so eager to break free of the gallery's confines that its cliched props and recorded statements leave viewers too little to chew on.
In contrast, Ashley Hunt's elaborate flow chart, drawn in chalk on a multi-part blackboard that measures more than 7-by-16 feet, invites viewers to connect the dots between economic crises and diminished liberties, raising questions about racism, justice and what it means to be human.
Likewise, Vincent Ramos' 3-D collage, made in collaboration with advanced-placement art students at Venice High, weaves together so many scenarios that it's impossible not to be drawn into its multilayered mysteries.
Both savvy pieces go a long way to map the charged links between individuals and groups. They also leave room for confusion while grappling with the promise of democracy and the down-to-earth difficulties of realizing ideals.
18th Street Arts Center, 1639 18th St., Santa Monica, (310) 453-3711, through Sept. 26. Closed Saturdays and Sundays. www.18thstreet.org
for a landing
If the great German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher had grown up with Google Earth at their fingertips, they might have made images like those in the small exhibition, "Elevated Descent: The Helipads of Downtown Los Angeles." At the Center for Land Use Interpretation, the unsentimental show surveys a single, often overlooked feature of the urban landscape to tell us something significant about the world we live in.
The exhibition consists of two series of images, each presented in the manner of an old-fashioned slide show, and two straightforward captions, each printed on a letter-size piece of paper.
The written component provides basic background facts, informing visitors that L.A.'s downtown has far more helipads than any other city in the country, and that is because zoning laws require every building taller than 75 feet to have an Emergency Helicopter Landing Facility. (Fire truck ladders rarely reach higher than 80 feet.)
All of the images in the larger of the two presentations have been shot from above, giving visitors a bird's-eye view of the specially marked platforms. In the crisp, geometric pictures, space flattens dramatically.