Selecting an exhibition theme to go with an outdoor fund-raising dance and dinner party, which is what the Art Barn Association did this month for its show, "Washington Best Western," is not an idea with a whole lot of potential. But it turned out well.

Painter Scott Lucas, serving as guest curator, avoided conventional western imagery (one part cowboy, two parts purple mountain majesty) in favor of a more oblique, ironic approach to the subject. The result is an exhibition with some range and bite, containing 24 works by 10 artists whose thoughts and feelings about the reality and myth of the American West seem relatively fresh, personal and up to date.

Even the more conventional images in the show, such as Stanley Sporny's large oil paintings of a "Railroad Crossing" in the desert, refuse to be entirely hemmed in by standard formulas. Sporny's painting is a vision of vast distances and blinding light. The subject is a cliche but the treatment unusual: Despite the distances our attention is focused upon the foregound of scrub bushes taking up more than half of the picture and executed with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of blistering, bravura strokes of the brush.

Other artists in the show celebrate the landscape, but always with a twist. Still others deal with the West as a type of mental baggage we carry with us in our everyday lives: Michal Hunter touches nerves of nostalgia and humor in her nude self-portrait-with-dog; Ken Saville plays with comic city-country contradictions in painted free-standing constructions; and with dry humor Lester Van Winkle presents the West as a set of speechless artifacts.

The native mythic echoes of the territory come up in the paintings of Rick Ward and Randy Lee White. Ward deals rather portentously with the subject in paintings that combine abstract symbols and raw visionary landscapes. White combines the narrative conventions of 19th-century Indian painting with a sophisticated style, an unusual mix with which he persuasively conveys something of the obsessive mental and physical violence accompanying the clash between native American and Euro-American cultures.

The exhibition continues through Sunday at the Art Barn, 2401 Tilden St. NW in Rock Creek Park, open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

Woman as Myth

Remembered images of works by Mary Beth Edelson, who juried the show, will fill the minds of many viewers as soon as they walk into "Woman as Myth and Archetype" at the Washington Woman's Art Center. This is not entirely good for the work on view. Edelson's multifaceted art has set high standards in this feminist terrain for more than a decade and much of the work here doesn't quite measure up. Still, the exhibition is worth seeing. I particularly liked the pointed collages of words and images by Iris F. Kaufman; the neatly ambiguous collages by Nancy Cusick; the fiery large drawings by Patricia Buck and strong, provocative drawings by Taina Litwack. Through Saturday at 1821 Q St. NW, open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Holes and Parts

An exhibition at the Emerson Gallery in McLean celebrates the beginning of a third decade for this suburban art enclave. It is like a skewed mini-history of Washington art during the past 20 years. Each of the 12 artists in the exhibition is present because of a prior solo show at the Emerson. The artists are Leonard Maurer, Jacob Kainen, H.I. Gates, Luciano Penay, Jennie Lea Knight, Prentiss Taylor, Werner Drewes, Tom Dineen, Elaine Gates, Pietro Lazzari, Jack Perlmutter and Constance Costigan -- a wildly disparate list in which the holes seem as important as the parts.Through Saturday at 1431 Ingleside Ave., open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

Which Is the Real Stuff?

A two-person exhibit at the Arlington Arts Center pairs Laura Peery and Jeanne Mitnick, young artists who share studio space at the center, which perhaps explains the eerie affinity among their works. Actual textures and their fool-the-eye ceramic counterparts are contrasted with wit and skill in Peery's curious ordinary objects -- purses, hats, shoes, sewing boxes, tools. In selections from two years of work Mitnick demonstrates how to turn a conventional idea -- different views of the same object organized in a grid -- into an original one, wherein the grids become "real" backgrounds (napkins, tablecloths, note cards, link fences) upon which a variety of jewel-like objects are delicately set.

Also on view is a photographic exhibition, "Unpeopled Spaces," juried by Washington dealer Kathleen Ewing. Both shows through Saturday at 3550 Wilson Blvd., open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.