THE CROSSROADS that is college graduation -- a time of simultaneous looking forward and backward -- is never more apparent than in "Academy 2004," the latest version of Conner Contemporary Art's annual summer roundup of work by recent area art-school grads. It is a time, as the Maryland Institute College of Art's Julee Holcombe writes in her artist's statement, of capturing "history within a futuristic vision," or to lift a line from the Corcoran College of Art and Design's Katie Donegan, of leaving the familiar "comfort zone" for a world of unknowns.

The gaze of the student transitioning into a working artist typically turns from the inward out, and that shift, from staring at one's own navel to an engagement with the global art community, can be seen here, too. What is perhaps most surprising about this show in general is the engagement of its artists, not just with the contemporary art of the last 10 minutes, but with the long tradition of art history.

"For Da Bitchez," by Stephen Pauley of MICA, is a case in point.

On the one hand, it's quintessentially student work, in that its subject matter is a bathroom stall at Baltimore's Mount Royal Tavern, a popular art-student hangout. In other words, Pauley didn't travel very far afield from his own back yard. He also manifests, in his affection for graffiti, an obvious debt to photographer Aaron Siskind and numerous others who have fallen in love with urban decay. Where Pauley simultaneously departs from and reveres tradition is in his choice of material. Unlike Siskind, he doesn't just photograph the wall, but carves it, etching the calligraphic dance of graffiti -- men's room on one side, women's on the other -- into a marble facsimile of a public restroom stall. What is more classic than marble sculpture? And yet what is more contemporary than Pauley's pop, street-art sensibility and gently transgressive wit? It's high- and lowbrow in one cool package.

Photography is particularly strong here, especially in the work of Djakarta, a Corcoran grad who, in an unfortunate evocation of Cher and Charo, prefers one name, and MICA's Holcombe. The rich, velvety blacks of these artists' backgrounds call to mind painted chiaroscuro. Yet their subject matter -- race and history in Djakarta's case, and the seductive dangers of technology (among other things) in Holcombe's -- are decidedly modern.

So too, Mary Coble of George Washington University engages both the past and the present in her formally staid but gender-bending portraits of drag kings. Culled by exhibition organizer Jamie Smith from Coble's "Blurring Boundaries" series, the pictures are a pointed hodgepodge of tattoos, lace bras, men's underpants, fake beards and lipstick. Even J. Jordan Bruns, a painter from MICA, pays homage to both classic portraiture and advertising in his cool but painterly pictures of his seemingly interchangeable twenty-something pals.

Many traditions are referenced here, from ethnic folk art (Michelle Fernandes of Catholic University) to mid-century abstraction (Lesley Shekitka of American University) to pin-up art (Terri Thomas of the Corcoran) to video (Annie Schap) and theatrical installation (Donegan). Not all are successful, even at defining themselves. How much irony, for instance, is contained in Fernandes' hermetic little painted narratives, which could be called almost Rousseau-like -- or merely clumsy -- in their naivete? Schap, on the other hand, leaves no doubt as to her self-consciously sophomoric nose thumbing, in videos documenting two "performances." One consists of the artist's hands, spelling out in inked-on words, the lyrics to Nazareth's power ballad "Love Hurts"; the other captures her burping, in gas from a just-chugged beer, the words, "I love you."

These last two pieces are achingly modern: smart-ass, high-tech and technique-less. Yet what they're about -- the pain, urgency and universality of love -- is one of the oldest and corniest subjects in the book.

ACADEMY 2004 -- Through Saturday at Conner Contemporary Art, 1730 Connecticut Ave. NW, second floor (Metro: Dupont Circle). 202-588-8750. Open Tuesday-Saturday 11 to 6. Free.

The "Academy 2004" roundup of works by recent area art-school graduates includes "Allegory of Vanity," by Julee Holcombe of the Maryland Institute College of Art.Detail of Stephen Pauley's "For Da Bitchez," a marble sculpture of a bathroom stall at a popular art-student hangout in Baltimore.