Political art, very hip two decades ago, is so unhip it’s hip again, partly thanks to the politicized climate (thank you, Dubya). But to judge from “Patriot Acts,” it’s also thanks to the emergence of a new generation of socially sensitive post- and/or neoconceptualists who know how to make statements that look like art and still make a point. Large wall installations by Shirley Tse and Pam Strugar (collaboratively) and Rebecca Ripple operate like walk-in billboards, while the videos of Sara Hendren and (as a duo) Meena Nanji and Tommy Gear engage artful production values that keenly convey message and information. Christie Frields smartly updates 19th-century political controversies in her installational sculpture, while Zeal Harris’ neo-outsider frieze sends a figure on a video-game-like journey. Hillary Mushkin and Susan Silton, each in her own way, consider a language of image. Coupled with the activities in the nearby Habeas Lounge run by curator Linda Pollack, “Patriot Acts” not only sharpens our awareness of current problems — informing us of how many and varied such problems are — but also demonstrates that art can be a very effective sharpener. 18th Street Arts Center, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica; Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; thru March 29. (310) 453-3711. Check www.18thstreet.org for Habeas Lounge events.
Ed Ruscha has studiously avoided politics but always peered intensely at the social landscape. This awareness of what’s around him, and an equally famous sensitivity to the porous line between visual and verbal expression, make Ruscha a practical touchstone for even the most politicized artists. Shows of his early prints and of his iconic Standard Station images in various media perfectly display Ruscha’s sense of graphic rightness and linguistic oddness. Of all the Pop artists, Ruscha best pitches the product, critiques the product and dissects the pitch all at once. “Early Graphic Work: 1960-1977” at Griffin, 2902 Nebraska Ave., Santa Monica; Tues.-Sat. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (310) 586-6886. “Standard Stations” at Honor Fraser, 2622 S. La Cienega Blvd., L.A.; Tues.-Sat. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (310) 837-0191. Both thru March 29.