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Soil Service

The new Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art changes the landscape.

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This was worth the wait. In the elegant and subtle new Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, architect Kyu Sung Woo has designed a light-filled space whose primary duty is to showcase art, not itself. At the October 27 public opening, overwhelming crowds seemed pleased by what they saw.

Inaugurating the first-floor galleries is American Soil, an exhibition of borrowed work and pieces from the Nerman collection. Through diverse images that suggest landscape in its broadest possible sense, six artists examine our emotional, cultural, political and environmental relationship with America.

Some of the most accomplished and complex works are paintings by Los Angeles artist Tomory Dodge — monumental pieces that seem to exist in the space between narration and abstraction, between nature and culture. Using fat brush strokes and a palette knife, Dodge creates ambiguous, unknowable landscapes; they're both familiar and alien. "Mirage" and "Tunnel" shimmer between representing nature and representing the pleasure of paint itself. Dodge's spectacular paintings examine the sometimes real and sometimes fictional places located on society's outer edge.

New York artist Brad Kahlhamer's large works on paper resonate with aggressive mark-making and multiple ideologies. In "Waqui Totem USA," Kahlhamer piles skulls, stylized totem figures and a small painted scene from The Searchers into a densely packed image. Eagle heads and other images also cluster within the work, driving our view around and through the piece. Kahlhamer's expressionistic style draws from music, sexuality and death to assert his own peculiar visionary relationship to the land. Like most of his works, "Waqui Totem USA" considers the relationship — or the lack of one — among seemingly disparate notions.

Chicago artist Angelina Gualdoni suggests that though we may build structures, they will eventually succumb to forces that exist outside them: nature and our own mistakes. Typically, she paints buildings in a precarious and sometimes creepy setting that's semi-natural and disintegrating. In "Slating in Suspension," a beautiful home exists in a landscape of detritus. With its abstracted yard strewn with metal, tires and other waste, the house seems bound for a similar destiny. Gualdoni's gorgeous, liquidy treatment of the paint, which she leaves thin and watery in some places, heightens the decaying impact on these once-utopian buildings and places. Her painted dystopias imply the unease with which we should approach our place in the landscape.

Nicola Lopez, who is based in Brooklyn, offers a strategy for our sometimes-irrational relationships with land and city through her focused mapping. "Eye of the Storm" sucks us into the confusing vortex of an urban setting where, through a maze of gridlike structures, we seem to look up and down. The simultaneous experience suggests the fractured nature of attempts to plot out urban areas, which can change almost overnight, or to map ourselves into any one place. She suggests that our experiences shouldn't be mapped — after all, what's the point? Creating order out of disorder becomes nonsensical, an exercise of diminishing returns. In light of that philosophy, her atlases of chaos make perfect sense.

All of the artists in American Soil grapple with what it means to try to define landscape in its most conceptual sense. These are landscapes of ideologies and perceptions, offering emotional responses to the environmental and cultural shifts we make as we age along with our surroundings.

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