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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Alexis Rockman is an artist who's delighted by the natural world. But he's also worried about where it's heading now. His work depicts a world that's both real and fanciful, genuine and synthetically altered. A major exhibition of his art opened yesterday at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

NPR science correspondent Joe Palca visited the show and has this report.

JOE PALCA: Alexis Rockman makes a big impression. Not only is his art arresting but he has the kind of good looks that causes palpitations in those who find men attractive. Rockman grew up in the '60s and '70s and, like many of his generation, the experience left him with an activist streak.

Mr. ALEXIS ROCKMAN (Artist): I can't just accept that I stay in my studio and be, you know - I would not say self-indulgent because that's too judgmental, but self-involved.

PALCA: So Rockman gets out. He spent weeks camping in the rain forest. He took a ship through the Antarctic Peninsula. He paints the world as it is today and how it might be. The new exhibition contains nearly four dozen of his meticulously rendered works.

We pause before a painting nearly 30 feet long. When he came back from Antarctica, Rockman had to decide how to represent all the ice he saw down there.

Mr. ROCKMAN: Why not make a group portrait of ice and think of it like a family portrait of what's not going to be here forever?

PALCA: It's a memorable portrait. The icebergs are realistic and imaginary at the same time. An ominous sky hangs overhead.

Rockman likes to play with our expectations of what's normal. In the painting called "Sea World," an audience watches as a collection of marine animals perform tricks, but the animals are nothing like the killer whales and dolphins we're used to seeing.

Mr. ROCKMAN: They're familiar in terms of their roles and some of them are familiar from, you know, paleontological history. You have a Dunkleosteus, which to me is the most frightening predator in history.

PALCA: I don't know anything about it.

Mr. ROCKMAN: Oh, it's a Devonian fish that's now, luckily for humans, extinct. But it was enormous and very frightening.

PALCA: And here it is, receiving a treat from a trainer in a bikini for performing in front of the audience.

Ms. MARSH (Smithsonian American Art Museum): That's part of his signature style, is to make the familiar seem foreign, to make our world seem otherworldly.

PALCA: Joanna Marsh is curator of the exhibition. These sea creatures, somehow restored to life in a theme park, hint at a future where cloning makes re-creating extinct animals possible.

Ms. MARSH: This idea of genetic engineering is a recurring subject in Rockman's work.

PALCA: As an example, on the wall facing Sea World is a painting called "The Farm." At first blush, it's a typical farm scene with livestock wandering through the planted fields. But it's not real at all. There's a normal cow, but also a cow bred to be square in shape for easy packing, a pig so obese it can no longer move, a chicken with three wings that look like they're ready to be popped off and thrown into the deep fat fryer. The images are, well...

Mr. ROCKMAN: They're - they're scary.

PALCA: Is that the point?

Mr. ROCKMAN: Hell, yeah.

PALCA: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ROCKMAN: I mean, or should we say heck, yeah?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROCKMAN: The history of artificial selection is a powerful thing, and human behavior is not always kind.

PALCA: Rockman asks us to consider where we should draw the limits when altering nature.

Mr. ROCKMAN: What is a species and what are the boundaries of that? Those are all frightening things to certainly myself.

PALCA: So can I say it's also a little bit amusing?

Mr. ROCKMAN: Oh, of course. I mean humor is something that I started to think about, I mean I would say black humor. But, you know, those things are obviously ways of telling the truth. Right? You don't want to completely alienate the world with tough images.

PALCA: There are different ways of getting at the truth. A scientist's truth involves measurements and reproducibility. Rockman says an artist's truth involves more metaphor. It's informed by science, but it's not constrained by it. Climate models don't specifically say New York City will be buried under 50 feet of water, but Rockman imagines it happening in one of his post-apocalyptic panoramas. Perhaps the sea reclaiming the city is payback for humans mucking around with genetic engineering. Something to think about.

Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.

SIMON: You can find a gallery of Alexis Rockman's work at npr.org.

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