For Leonardo da Vinci, mathematics and the Mona Lisa smiled at the same joke, and art and science interlocked like the fingers of a man in prayer. Though contemporary representational artists such as Lucian Freud and Eric Fischl have little to do with the sciences, modern art is rife with fractal images and geometrical visual vocabularies.

“Interplay,” a five-person group exhibition that opened Oct. 30 at the American Center for Physics in College Park, Md., recalls the connection between the two disciplines and explores the uncanny ways in which art and science interact. As photographer Jason Horowitz, who is featured in the show, puts it: “Science is about describing space. I’m interested in conveying the emotional content of physics and space.”

Each of the five artists on display at the physics center takes a different approach to this endeavor. Horowitz describes his own photographs of TV-dinner fare, taken under a microscope, as “almost pseudo-science. It’s all these made-up worlds within this strange little context…and then, of course, I watched a lot of Star Trek on TV.” Painter Andrea Way says her ink-and-acrylic works evoke “evolution itself….[Each painting] grows because it’s about growth.”

Way and Horowitz won’t be cloning any sheep this year, but they and their co-exhibitors, Wendy Ross, Sara Yerkes, and Christopher Myers, definitely lend credence to da Vinci’s famous words that painting “truly…is science, the legitimate daughter of nature, because painting is born of that nature.”

Way’s large geometric paintings are a good illustration of this maxim. “This is a crude attempt to imitate nature,” she says of the patterned designs she creates through a set of predetermined formulas. “In each painting, I start with a set of rules and systems. Nothing happens except in the framework of this set of specific rules.” Rules that—like the rules that govern the physical world—include a certain level of chaos.

For the painting Island Pools, Way poured small puddles of water at regular intervals on a 24-by-32-inch board, then dripped ink into each puddle. She then traced the almost-random ink-splays with a ballpoint pen and drew over the result with a carefully ordered layer of dots in mathematical series.

“I put in the dots in a counting code, a series of dots where I’d have departure points,” says Way. “At every 10th one, say, something will happen—if it’s just a brighter dot, or it’s a horizontal series of dots that starts from there.

“What’s interesting is, I really start to discover things that I don’t have any way of anticipating,” says Way, describing one piece in which she used cicada wings for the design of a screen print, then developed her mathematical series using the number 17, the length of the cicada life cycle in years.

“It became real insecty,” says Way. “There were areas that looked like eggs. It just fit very well….patterns would just arise, and the end result was really very cicada-ish. There were beats and rhythms and modes of behavior that really suggested them.”

The resulting Cicada might just be the kind of thing to make Mona smile. —Robin Bingham