Collage of Arts and Sciences_lowres

This detail from Alexis Rockman's The Farm, part of Newcomb's Paradise Now exhibition, provides a grotesque take on genetic engineering.

We've suspected it for some time now, but lately it's become obvious: The rest of the world thinks we're crazy. Just turn on the TV. The president says war against Iraq will make America safe even as enraged Muslims all over Asia respond by pledging to wage jihad against us, giving Al-Qaeda a windfall of new recruits, according to the latest news reports. But what really bugs the hell out of people everywhere is GM. No, not the maker of gas guzzling SUVs, but GM, the acronym for those genetically modified crops that gave us python or barracuda genes in our morning corn flakes. America, the perpetual optimist, says GM is cool and groovy; the rest of the world says we're nuts.

Crazy or not, GM is becoming entrenched; thanks to the birds, the bees and the breeze, it is inexorably cross pollinating other crops even as the process of cloning living creatures tests the boundaries of scientific ethics. And while cloning is a no-no in this country, Europe takes a more relaxed tone. All this techno turmoil has not gone unnoticed, and this Paradise Now show is one of the more noteworthy art-world responses. Of course, art and science have had any number of fateful encounters over the years, of which irony has been perhaps the most obvious byproduct. And irony, it should be noted, is quite different from optimism.

In Paradise Now (a title that is itself an ironic reference to scientific optimism) there are many peculiar sights to be seen. Laura Stein's photographs, Smile Tomato and Green Pig, offer a wry commentary on designer botanicals in the form of tomatoes that look like inane Happy Faces in some cases, or Porky Pig in others, thus intimating what the agriculture of the future might bring: veggies genetically designed to look like cartoon characters (although she herself cheated by forcing them into cartoon pig or smiley face molds as they grew). Related themes are seen in Alexis Rockman's The Farm, a large landscape painting of a variety of farm animals and vegetables genetically engineered to be bigger, fatter, with extra parts and even more rectangular to fit more neatly into their eventual supermarket packaging. (While grotesque, this pales in comparison with some actual gene-modification experiments.)

Seemingly more subtle is Bradley Rubenstein's portrait of a boy with an endearing expression, the sort of shyly eager grin and big brown eyes that put you in mind of a puppy dog. But it all turns creepy as close inspection reveals that there is something a little too puppyish about that child. It's those eyes -- they're not human. The title, Boy With Puppy Dog Eyes literally says it all regarding the creep-show potential of genetic engineering. Yikes!

But the curiosities keep on coming. A softly impressionistic image of a mother and child rendered in tones of pale straw and a grassy green is so subtle that it takes a minute to realize that it's really a living carpet of grass with deep-green shadowing from the photosynthesis of chlorophyll (probably achieved by masking off the pale portions, but it does hint at what lawns of the future might look like). And a modern building interior in a weird salmon-pink color recalls a more organic take on Corbusier at first, at least until you get in close and notice all the pores and hair follicles that permeate this inhabitable room of human flesh.

Other works seem more inclined to celebrate DNA as an icon, as in Suzanne Anker's playful arrangement of x chromosomes arranged on a wall like a monumental child's game, or Helen Chadwick's Nebulae, rounded photos of cells, dandelion puff balls and eyes mounted in clear, glassy perspex -- all very beautiful, but what does it really have to say? Never mind. Christine Davis' ACGT pieces are lovely extrapolations of genetic data as linear sequences of alphabet-coded chain mail in the couture tradition of Paco Raban and Leslie Dill. You might have to read the wall text or catalog to figure out what they are really all about -- or else attend Newcomb education coordinator Samantha Kelly's Family Day for Children on Sunday, March 30. (Call Newcomb for more information.) Whatever, it's an intriguingly attractive exhibition if you don't mind the sci-fi aesthetics and techno-esoterica that underlie its appealing aura of mystery, as well as its occasionally perplexing opacity.