We've seen a lot of Santiago Espinosa de los Monteros lately. The Mexico City-based curator mounted a sprawling, three-venue survey of contemporary Mexican art last spring. Now he's put the final touches on a tight, sharp complement to that effort. The new "Mirrors: Contemporary Mexican Artists in the United States," on view at the Cultural Institute of Mexico, collects art by expatriates examining both their former home and their adopted one. Despite a few curatorial hiccups, the show's provocative fare outranks its sister exhibition -- as well as most every area gallery's fall launch.

Espinosa de los Monteros's installation of 100 works by 36 artists includes occasionally maddening choices -- photographs of vagina-butterflies, anyone? -- but enough insight to make up for those weaknesses. Even those works capable of standing on aesthetics alone gain political weight in this context. Alberto Montano's gorgeous "Lambs Circle," a DVD and large-scale color photograph depicting a bird's-eye view of sheep descending upon a circle of feed, can be read as metaphor for groupthink, migration and survival instincts. Yet its appearance in "Mirrors" evokes immigration and displacement, too. Likewise, Mauricio Alejo's photograph of toilet paper linking the walls of a blue-tiled bathroom gains the symbolic weight of a fragile bridge over a massive cultural gap.

The show's overtly political works deliver messages with such wry aplomb that we can't help but laugh at their dark truths. Julio Cesar Morales's five-part digital print and sculpture series cuts the figure of an immigrant street vendor and pastes it, paper-doll-style, into various scenarios, including a rubble-strewn site we presume lies south of the border -- perhaps a construction zone or a town in ruins. With limited job opportunities both here and at home, neither place seems preferable. Likewise, Dulce Pinzon's photo series of a Hispanic bicycle deliveryman dressed in a Superman costume and, later, photographed at the Laundromat in Wonder Woman garb, dramatizes the gulf between the American myth and its daily realities.

For visitors concerned with the state of art as well as our Union, Monteros's show presents a few trends and troubles to gnaw on. The problem of painting abstraction becomes painfully clear: The few abstract paintings here are easily overlooked. Why any artist dares apply paint to canvas using a squeegee after Gerhard Richter effectively mastered that strategy is unclear to me. On the bright side, Felipe "Feggo" Galindo's comic watercolors seem fresh; their delicacy is sympathetic to so much drawing these days. (And what a wicked sense of humor Galindo has. Mexican artifacts enact absurd acts of revenge on Big Apple institutions, a bit like anti-imperialist New Yorker cartoons.)

A special mention goes to Gabriel de la Mora's "Maria and Pulgarcito," a comical installation of furniture, works on paper, photographs and sculpture that, on its surface, chronicles the passionate relationship of a dog and his mistress. Dumpy Maria is a woman of few interests beyond her pup, whom she's named Tom Thumb, after the pint-size youth from the Brothers Grimm. As in most bonds of mutual dependence, it's not always clear who holds the leash. This proves as valuable a lesson for the Rio Grande's neighbors as it does for pet fanciers.

'Sighs' at Numark, 'Prophecies' at Irvine

If aliens landed at Numark Gallery and Irvine Contemporary Art this month, they'd declare Washingtonians certifiable. Though both these shows are a bit thin, the exhibitions are rightly tuned to our escapist times. They encourage us to look at ourselves and, one hopes, to book therapy appointments.

Numark's "The Empire of Sighs" benefits from a handsome hang by curator Andrea Pollan. Her group show explores the fanciful in contemporary art, cast as post-9/11 escapism. Some pieces come off too twee -- Sarah Hobbs's photograph of a chair among eggs relies too heavily on surrealism, while Kyung Jeon adds yet more drawings of sexually available prepubescent Asians to our current surfeit of such images -- but a few works manage to show both sides of our obsession with wonderment: It distracts us from workaday worries while acknowledging that myths have at their roots grains of horror.

Roxy Paine's ultra-realist reproduction of an extra-large toadstool is a wonder in and of itself, never mind the mushroom's capacities for both psychedelic trips and poisonings. Walter Martin and Paloma Munoz's reworked snow globes feature scenes of horror rather than pretty tourist sites. Works such as these get at the worries that fantasies distract us from, and prove how elusive escapism can be.

What, then, would our alien friends make of "The Apollo Prophecies," a faux museum installation by artist duo Nicholas Kahn & Richard Selesnick at Irvine? Perhaps they would understand that this is a joke -- a false history, a museum to a moonwalk that never happened -- set up like old dioramas at the Air and Space Museum.

As Kahn & Selesnick tell it, a lost Edwardian moon exploration preceded America's 1969 crew led by Neil Armstrong. They present the ephemera to prove it: a gallery of 19th-century beakers and test tubes, moon rocks displayed in a dusty vitrine, and the very "machine" that these British gentlemen used to scan the lunar surface (it looks like a cannon made out of tinfoil). Black-and-white panoramic photographs "documenting" their mission hang on the walls.

All this cleverness pokes fun at us today, of course. How quickly our heroic exploits become quaint. The sentiment is anti-hubris, anti-colonization, anti-imperialist. Hmm . . . whom could these artists be talking about?

Mirrors: Contemporary Mexican Artists in the United States at the Cultural Institute of Mexico, 2829 16th St. NW, Monday-Friday 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., 202-728-1628, through Nov. 30.

The Empire of Sighs at Numark Gallery, 625-627 E St. NW, Tuesday-Thursday 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-6 p.m., 202-628-3810, through Oct. 29.

The Apollo Prophecies at Irvine Contemporary Art, 1710 Connecticut Ave. NW, Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m., 202-332-8767, through Oct. 22.

Nicholas Kahn & Richard Selesnick's Edwardian explorers win the race to the moon at Irvine Contemporary Art, above; Mauricio Alejo's "Paper," left, bridges a gap at the Cultural Institute of Mexico; and Walter Martin and Paloma Munoz's chilling snow globe scene at Numark Gallery.