Contemporary art is usually understood as Western art since World War II. It might seem an arbitrary line in the sand, but Western culture was shaken to the core by the war. New York became the new Paris. Abstract Expressionism roared to life. And the faith in Eurocentric cultural historicism was shattered and replaced by myths of self-expression and individual achievement.

It was in the compost of that shattered faith where the seeds of feminism took root. Patriarchal Europe’s cultural foundation had crumbled under the shadows of genocide and war in a plague of bombs and spiteful sectarianism. European erudition had failed, and it was a time to question tradition.

Largely as a response to the shift of the Western cultural capital to America, Pop Art was born in the early 1950s in Britain. From the start, Pop Art was a post-modern movement insofar as it posited that human cultural realities are ever-shifting social creations. Because of its ability to represent conflict between multiple perspectives, postmodernism quickly became a powerful approach for artists with political concerns.

It’s not by chance that the pop and postmodernist “Rules of Domesticity” at Harlow Gallery in Hallowell focuses on the triumph of postwar American family culture. Again and again, the four artists in the show — Debra Arter, Cynthia Ahlstrin, Jennifer Booker and Barbara Emerson — hark back to the marketing industry myths created to define the relations of American women to their families and the marketplaces of capitalism.

“Rules” is obviously a show concerned with feminist perspectives, but feminism is a complex and multi-faceted entity. While some of the art is critical of traditional relations, other work in “Rules” seems to accept it as identity-defining fact.

Several of Arter’s pieces, for example, tie her directly to the commercial objects used to define the American housewife of the past. Her “Joy” includes a cast paper glove mounted on a plastic dish-soap bottle holding the “artist’s own sponge.” Another piece features a towering stack of her laundry soap cups, clearly proving Arter absolutely subscribes to brand loyalty.

Ahlstrin’s work, on the other hand, sows the seeds of subtle sedition. Her collaged paintings (in a 1950s style that works, although much of her work is too cartoonish) of the five days of the week each illustrate a witty bit of defiance on the part of “today’s housewife.”

On Monday, she “accidentally” turns his washed white shirts pink (“I thought pink was your favorite color!” says the speech bubble); on Tuesday, we see burn marks from the iron all over his hanging shirts, and her thought bubble — “I will only have to do this once”; and so on until Friday. It might be passive aggressive, but it’s unquestionably an insurrection.

My favorite pieces are Emerson’s beaded tools. “Starry Knife” is a machete covered in bright beads echoing the style of Van Gogh. (It instantly had me singing an updated version of Don McLean’s “Vincent” to myself.) Mounted in a vitrine on the wall — like her gun, saw, hatchet, chainsaw and ax — the decorated machete is disarmed and amusingly emasculated.

Conceptual shows are inevitably mixed, because each given piece succeeds or fails on its own wit and ability to convey its own content. When the jokes fail, so do the pieces. And when art doesn’t insistently ride the road to refinement, you often find smart pieces that are badly finished.

“Rules” is no exception.

To wit, Arter comes across as extremely creative and abundantly endowed with talent. Her lithograph of a stove-burner pair of breasts (“Hot Date”) is terrific. Her felted wool bacon and eggs (“Blue Plate Special”) are hilarious, subtle (the title takes you out of the home and into a restaurant) and wonderfully executed.

But her “Wife Plaque from Perry’s Nut House” is snobby and just plain mean. And I don’t like her taking images directly from a 1950 “Ladies Home Journal,” framing them separately as prints, and acting like they are art she made herself. With some editing, Arter could have come across much better than she does.

Booker’s pair of domestic spaces is complex and less easily compartmentalized as art objects. She echoes the ’50s aesthetic but expands the conversation with a tip of the hat to Luce Iriguray’s idea that the mother-daughter relationship has been undervalued in Western culture, as well as some curiously enigmatic photos such as a buxom young mother breast-feeding a baby with an overwhelming tattoo on its back.

While Ahlstrin’s altered-book bra (“The Fortune Catcher”) and gartered girdle (“Repurposed Romance”) are fantastic, I think her underwear piece hanging in the middle of the room is a distraction along the lines of too much information. But one of the great things about “Rules” is that it makes you question yourself — which pretty much forces you to parse every work until you “get” it.

 “Rules” is a sparky, entertaining and thought-provoking show with a playful touch. What’s surprising about it, in fact, is its refusal to be heavy-handed, shrill or anti-male.

Because of this range, it’s a particularly interesting and worthy show featuring art about feminism.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: [email protected]