Eve was a clone. The fact that Adam's rib is said to have produced a female, rather than another male, might suggest merely the precariousness of genetic mutation.
At the Williamson Gallery at Art Center College of Design, "Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution" assembles work from the past decade by 35 artists that riffs on the contemporary phenomenon of genetic research, engineering and manipulation. No single point of view on the mind-boggling subject is advanced, and the miracles -- like Eve -- are few and far between.
The most compelling piece on view is a well-known photographic work by Keith Cottingham, titled "Fictitious Portraits." His digitally constructed triptych fabricates a formal portrait of an adolescent boy with ethereal facial features, stripped to the waist and seated before a dark background. In the first image, he's placed unusually low in the pictorial field, his head just below center, so that the surrounding darkness seems heavy and forbidding.
In the second, he's been joined by a doppelganger seated at his side, which creates a conflicted effect. The twin-like similarity between the two boys makes you scrutinize them with suspicion. But the presence of a second boy also brings relief: At least neither one is alone in the oppressive darkness.
The third image adds a third seemingly identical boy -- this one standing behind and above the other two, staring straight ahead to meet our gaze. Suspicion and relief now give way to a mix of wonder and horror. Triplets? Or perhaps an ominous foreboding of a new master race subtly suggested by the placement of the third figure as a looming presence who now dominates the visual field, his neatly parted hair falling in Hitler-like bangs across his right eyebrow.
Cottingham manipulates graphic elements to powerful ends. Most of the art in "Paradise Now" is more bland, descriptive and inert.
Julian La Verdiere has composed a still life from plastic fruit, which is displayed inside a plastic contraption filled with recirculating nitrogen gas. Christy Rupp offers a wall decorated with plastic takeout containers sporting nondescript labels she's designed: "Greed Beans," "Genetically Messed With" and "Spin Control Brand." Alexis Rockman's large painting, "The Farm," shows gross-out animal and vegetable mutations -- square tomatoes, a chicken with six wings, a cow with an immense udder and a green parakeet next to yellow and blue ones (essence of parakeet, deconstructed). These are works that replace ambiguity with assertion, asking only that viewers concur.
One subcategory, of which Cottingham's triptych is a rare standout, uses the idea of a "genetic portrait" to bridge the realms of science and art. Nicholas Rule creates a horse-breeding chart whose linear pattern doubles as an abstract painting. Steve Miller makes dim Warhol-style portraits by silk-screening medical images -- CT scans, X-rays, sonograms, etc. -- onto canvas in Pop colors. Somewhere between lackluster and obtuse, these and other tedious portraits lag far behind the science of genetics in their degree of imaginative fascination.
Brandon Ballengee is at least aware of this potential problem. His installation -- and the word is used advisedly -- is actually a science fair project. Six tanks are lined up on a shelf under fluorescent lights, each tank containing little frogs and nutrient material. A wall text explains that Ballengee is "breeding backward" in an attempt to recapture surface traits of a frog species said to be extinct. In the face of weird science, pseudo-art seems a tacit admission of defeat.
Genetic research might in fact be "rewriting the definition of life," as guest curators Marvin Heiferman and the late Carole Kismaric aptly put it. (They organized the show for New York's alternative gallery, Exit Art, in 2000; a trimmed version has been touring since.) If so, the nature of human experience is also changing. One wishes more of this art explored that avenue, rather than simply functioning as sociological illustration.
In addition to Cottingham's triptych, the worthwhile efforts include Laura Stein's goofy "Smile Tomato," in which a vegetable grown inside a face mold takes on an ominous clown-like appearance.
Frank Moore's colorful gouaches transform mutation into wondrous play (imagine Van Gogh's sunflowers sporting Big Daddy Roth eyeballs). In a group of documentary photographs of genetic material stored haphazardly in laboratory freezers, Catherine Wagner uses the strict, formulaic, typological format of photographers like Bernd and Hilla Becher to surprisingly underscore the ad hoc, accidental nature of most human endeavor.