WE COULD MAKE Kim Dingle's Priss a mascot for the current show, Almost Warm and Fuzzy: Childhood and Contemporary Art, at the Tacoma Art Museum. In this assembled sculpture, a myopic, Brillo-haired baby girl stands in her crib, fists balled at her sides, surrounded by debris: disemboweled stuffed animals, broken toys, other, less identifiable junk. Priss is both a joke and a warning; the joke, of course, is the child's patent un-sweetness, and that is also the warning. She is the child that is wiser--and angrier--than we give her credit for, and the garbage around her attests to her creative (maybe even appropriative) appetites.

The show presents itself as evidence of artists' childlike wonder and creativity, and is also (I imagine) meant to prove to children that Art can be Fun, not necessarily a mind-blowingly boring parade of still lifes and saints. The second point, I think, is well taken (if a bit condescending--remember Priss' warning), and the first strikes me as somehow wrong. This doesn't mean it isn't a good show--it is--but that its true smartness goes unrealized.

I don't think of the artist's perspective as childlike at all. What a good artist brings to his or her materials isn't un-loaded; not a blank slate, but an ability to see through the obvious to the possibility of meaning. A child may see such work differently from an adult (a young friend of mine, when asked his opinion about a recent installation, pronounced, "It's funny!"), but this attests only to what the viewer brings, not the artist. This makes Almost Warm and Fuzzy about something much more interesting: about irony, and the acquisition of it.

Take Charlie White's chromogenic print The Inland Empire. In the characteristically flat light of Southern California, a woman dressed in shorts and a tank top fends off a mutant dinosaur with what looks like a piece of re-bar. It's flawlessly composed, and, in a way, blasé (the monster is off to the side of the print, almost out of the frame), and the result is a scene that seems no more or less surreal than any given day in L.A. It's clear the way in which kids would love this ("It's funny!"), and it doesn't mean adults are immune to its humor (I certainly fell for it). But there's a subtle scariness at work here, the irony of its naturalness and the wit of the literal embodiment of everyday danger.

Maria Fernanda Cardoso's Cardoso Flea Circus is an installation that includes a videotape of her tiny performers walking tightropes, pulling miniature locomotives, and lifting weights. At the tail end of the video we see feeding time: the long, long expanse of Cardoso's arm, covered with fleas, each one in a kind of sequined hat flashing in the light--and the artist watching with a kind of dreamy vagueness. It's dark indeed: the price paid for art, for anything; and I don't think children are numb to this kind of nuance and sadness. There's plenty of such emotional ambiguity in Mike Kelley's soiled, crocheted toys; in Laura Whipple's mismatched tea party; in Beverly Semmes' enormous and dowdy wool dress.

That children bring a different mindset to any kind of media is nothing new. It's exactly the reason The Simpsons is so successful: It offers cartoony slapstick for one age group, and for another, the systematic slaying of culture, pop psychology, and even the cartoon itself. And our grown-up sensitivity to irony allows us, too, to see where it's unintentional, like the point at which we realize that Jurassic Park is also a Hollywood parable about itself, about entertainment gone horribly awry.

No doubt children will enjoy this show, although I think they would find it, in spite of itself, frustrating. There are so many things that they won't be able to touch, that so temptingly want to be touched--Meyer Vaisman's lamb's-wool turkey; Tom Friedman's detergent snow angel; Sandy Skoglund's jellybean-and-butterfly extravaganza, Shimmering Madness (which has been disappointingly abbreviated from the form in which it was shown last year at Consolidated Works). Nonetheless, this is an exhibition that shows children that it's possible to make vague feelings physical, that the world is full of nuance and indirect language, and there is a gap between appearance and reality. In short, it will teach them irony.