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It’s strange to go to China — in the midst of a contemporary-art boom, or bubble as could be feared — and encounter a stunning exhibition of American art. But that’s what Shanghai’s Museum of Contemporary Art is currently offering visitors.

With “Art in America Now,” the MOCA has scored a well-curated sample of what is going on currently in American arts. Organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, the show glides over a number of different artists but ultimately provides a thematic view of a vibrant, self-aware culture.

The MOCA sits quietly in the center of Shanghai, ensconced in a garden within People’s Park. As soon as you enter, the first floor immediately engages you with large works spaciously laid out in the two-story space. They act as a gentle introduction that arrests rather than screams for attention.

“TV Garden” (1974) by Nam Jun Paik (1932-2006) fills one corner with green plants and TV sets humming away with mixed footage from the 1970s, including a performance by poet Allen Ginsburg. Though you could ignore it at first, with its mix of foliage and glowing screens, the piece looks great. And, whatever the message it may have originally conveyed, you suspect it would surely look good anywhere.

More quickly noticed are an expressive sculpture of a man made of garbage bags taking a 10-foot step forward (Tom Friedman’s “Big Step” from this year) and Roger Welch’s to-scale 1960s American car, “Drive-in: Second Feature” (1982), made of branches of pine, bamboo, cherry and other woods. The rattan car looks like a classic Ford Thunderbird and impresses with its physical presence, so much that the accompanying video of classic film is unnecessary.

The movies by Matthew Barney, well displayed in a circle of monitors on the ceiling, are visually engaging with their candy colors. They are also knotty, hindered by their genesis in fetishized geometric symbols, ritualistic actions and strict commitment to concepts. Barney’s “Cremaster Cycle” (1994-2002) feature-length films are like “Alice in Wonderland” without the fun. But the last room on the first floor is a wicked treat.

America’s history of slavery is an uneasy subject, and art about it can easily be heavy-handed and didactic — deservedly so. Kara Walker’s “Insurrection! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On” (2000) does what the best pieces in “America Now” do by injecting subtle humor into angsty or painful situations. In a large open space, Walker projects colors over a sultry pre-Civil War tableau. Filling out the two walls are cutouts of caricatures — the dandy slave owner, young servant and underage female slave — in compromising and violent encounters that reveal themselves slowly.

Walker’s controversial work is confusing, as it both makes fun of a dark episode and makes you feel its terrible reality. Called “shameless” by some, Walker has said in an interview for the Museum of Modern Art, New York, that “I knew that if I was going to make work that had to deal with race issues, they were going to be full of contradictions.” Her distance from the subject, and appropriation of 19th-century art forms, allows her a freedom to explore more present-day issues of race, power and desire.

The photography upstairs cuts close to the bone of U.S. self-perception, and fears of that perception. The works the curators have chosen by Justine Kurland, Tim Davis, Nikki S. Lee, and others, directly confront modern America, but pull back before they deliver the punchline — confusing with the possibility of either sincerity or simply art-history commentary.

The choices of two of Laura McPhees’s photographs, “Quartered Rocky Mountain Elk, Milk Creek, White Cloud Mountains, Idaho” and “Mattie with Bourbon Red Turkey, Laverty Ranch, Custer County, Idaho” (2004), show the artist at her edgiest and most powerful. Both images speak of life, death and land; “Mattie,” in which a young woman dangles a freshly killed turkey upside down, feels like a mysterious symbol of the first promise of American bounty.

Among paintings by Dana Schutz, Adam Cvijanovic, Kristin Baker and Jules de Balincourt, the standouts are from Barnaby Furnas and Kehinde Whiley. The latter’s “Defend and Develop the Island Together” (2006), painted outside of Beijing, riffs nicely on the propaganda that adorns roadsides everywhere. His works typically portray young black American men, dressed casually, in poses from Old Masters’ works. The incongruous slogan in “Defend” (it’s in Chinese characters), though, makes you wonder what he could produce if he began to play with other races’ own self-perceptions and/or aspirations.

Perhaps that would fit better into “The World Now,” which “America Now” luckily doesn’t strive to be. What it does achieve is an excellent representation of smart works coming out of the United States. It would be great for Japanese artists to see such a show in Tokyo, or to see a well-constructed show of Japanese artists that does the same thing for them as “America Now.” Will “Roppongi Crossing 2007,” due this fall at the Mori Art Museum, be up to the challenge?

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