ART IN REVIEW; 'Paradise Now'

Published: September 15, 2000

'Picturing the Genetic Revolution'

Exit Art

548 Broadway, near Spring Street, SoHo

Through Oct. 28

''We are at a threshold,'' declares the text panel at the start of this show. And we are, you know.

Never mind that in ''Paradise Now'' the art isn't great, because the possibilities raised are endless, and the numbers, as they say on Wall Street, look good. More and more artists are tapping into science. (See Mass MOCA's ''Unnatural Science'' show for collateral confirmation.) So surely something big is bound to happen.

Organized by Marvin Heiferman and Carole Kismaric, veteran trendmeisters, ''Paradise Now'' highlights three dozen diverse artists interested in the genome project and biotechnology. The art spans a decade and runs the media gamut: paintings, photographs, computer-manipulated paintings and photographs, computer games, Conceptual games, sculptures, and funny-science projects that include the planting of trees, the collecting of sperm and the breeding of very tiny exotic frogs.

Mostly the works fret predictably about tampering with Mother Nature and about corporate malfeasance, the other stress being on identity politics, also predictably.

But anarchic gestures like Larry Miller's licensing of his own and a friend's DNA, documented in photographs, and Inigo Manglano-Ovalle's cryogenic sperm bank deal deftly with the touchy new intersection of commerce and human individuality. Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey have made grass, of all things, into a photographic medium, ingeniously: their work is a lawn hung on the wall, registering faintly an image of themselves prone.

Frank Moore and Alexis Rockman wave the traditional flag of painted surrealism, with a DNA twist. Laura Stein, vegetable dominatrix, has forced various vegetables and fruits to grow into animal-shaped molds, then photographed the mangled results, creating transparent though snappy metaphors. And Nancy Burson has designed a computer photo booth, the sitter's face altered, as desired, to simulate different races. It doesn't work very well, but the point, in light of DNA revelations that we are all 99.97 percent identical, comes across.

Much of the rest of what's here is just too time-consuming for the visual return. But the spirit of the show, an intangible, tips the scales in a positive direction. Scientists are doing the crucial research, but artists (not just visual artists) are going to have to help make sense of it all for the rest of us, the progress of humanity depending historically on a tandem of science and culture.

This relationship always derived from shared aims, scientists and artists both tackling the big issues of life and death, inventing systems of reality and other self-sufficient modes of representation. Previously allied, artists and scientists split sometime in the past century, to art's misfortune more than science's, a situation that this show, among others, indicates may be changing. Again art may be seeking its natural inspiration in science.

The timing is good, art's current penchant being to emulate, in a search for renewed relevance, myriad manifestations of cultural expression, from pop music and film to political advertising. A credit to spunky Exit Art -- which, here as before, seems regularly to exceed itself -- ''Paradise Now'' taps into a rich vein clearly. It's a brave new world waiting to be tested. This work is just a start. MICHAEL KIMMELMAN