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Nicola Lopez’s ambivalence about cityscapes makes for a thought-provoking show

Concentration City (panel 1)
Courtesy of Nicola López
Pylons and I-beams erupt from a bewildering landscape of buildings in Nicola Lopez’s “Construction City” (panel 1).

On the surface, Nicola López’s “Constriction Zone” appears to be all about architecture, roads and maps. But every time you think you’ve figured out her collages, the tumbling Escher-like blocks twist back on you. Her installation of highway clover-leafs and two-lane blacktop snakes across the walls and ceiling, trailing off into tentacles or, alternatively, roads that simply disappear.

So instead of the usual “you are here,” you keep asking, “Wait a minute — where the hell am I?”

Maybe that’s the point, or one of them, she says: “I don’t know where I am — do you?”

A simple-enough question, but one that leaves smarty-mouth arts writers uncharacteristically sputtering.

The interested or curious can try their own luck navigating “Constriction Zone,” on display through Jan. 19 at Franklin Art Works in Minneapolis.

Environmental impact statement
López grew up in New Mexico, but now lives in New York City. That contrast is partly responsible for the turn her work has taken. Coming from such a dramatically different place, “it made the urban environment [of New York] really stand out in a way it probably wouldn’t have if I’d grown up here,” she says in a telephone interview from her studio in Brooklyn.

The mixed-media drawings are staunchly rectilinear, often with that detached, utopian purity that characterizes the “artist’s conception of” illustrations of yet-to-be-built projects. The pylons and other human-made, if imaginary, structures bespeak a kind of industrial grandeur to anyone the least bit open to the idea. López acknowledges that she loves the landscape, “but I’m also terrified by it.”

With this latest work, she says she’s starting to move away from her interest in mapping, but the show still clearly expresses those concerns. Mapping has been a hot topic lately (check your scholarly journals if you don’t believe me) that goes well beyond “Take Route 2 and turn left at the light.”

“It’s become kind of a catchphrase, a neat package that can apply to almost everything,” she says, adding, “We all want to know where we are in the world — metaphysically, psychologically, emotionally, geographically.”

Her previous studies in anthropology also laid the groundwork for her art, she said, at least in terms of “curiosity and investigation about place.” What distinguishes her work from the sententious tedium of so much art of the last several decades is her engagement with the objects she’s making. You can see it amid all the architectural precision in the slightly ragged cut-out edges in parts of the collages, and occasional moments where she just doesn’t care if she obeys the coloring-book dictum to “stay in the lines.”

“Yes, part of it is calculated and really thought-out and related to conceptual underpinnings, and part of it is because it’s fun to draw,” she says.

And if people don’t “get” all the levels, that’s OK. If they do, she says, that’s ideal. “And why not be idealistic?”

What: Nicola López, “Constriction Zone.”
Where: Franklin Art Works, 1021 E. Franklin Ave., Minneapolis.
When: Through Jan. 19. Open noon-5 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday.
Note: Smaller shows in the gallery are also well worth a look: paintings by g. bradley rhodes, “as if you know me,” and the first U.S. solo exhibit by Shanghai artist Qiu Anxiong. The first in Anxiong’s series of three short films demands a great deal of patience or an extremely meditative frame of mind; the second and third ink-and-wash animations are, among other things, enchanting.

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