Land in Formation: Drawings

By Nicola López

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I am writing as I sit on an airplane between Santa Fe and Denver, nose pressed intermittently against the window to see the land below. Taking off we swing west and then south from the small airport, close enough to see the texture of the ground, presently so parched that it must crunch underfoot. Last time I went hiking out here (I’m looking for the trail now) it was snowing, soaking the basalt rocks to a dark, slick black. I can taste the crisp, almost tangy smell of snow-damp dirt and, with that sensory memory, feel the sense of rightness that belongs to thirst being slaked. As I gain altitude, it’s like my body drops away from me. I lose my sense of tactile connection to the land, connected to it now only by sight. From this heightened perspective, I try to see more than the physical details, reading in the land a story that encompasses distant times and the forces responsible for its shape.

LandForm 1, by Nicola López
LandForm 1, graphite on paper, 84” x 84”(2022), by Nicola López.

We pass over gently rising hills peppered with juniper and piñon and laced with the traces of water now absent: deep grooves of dry arroyos, and the shallower scars of fanned-out washes. The soft, gray surface is punctured by angry gashes where small mines have gouged into the raw, red earth. Judging from the color it must be volcanic. Probably from Valles Caldera, an enormous crater just to the north that is evidence of the Earth’s potent inner life. The Rio Grande snakes below me, carving its bed ever deeper and running into Cochiti Lake with a carefully controlled bloom of green stretching below the massive, concrete dam. We swing north, flying between the volcanically-formed Jemez range to the left and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the right, whose peaks and wrinkles were formed by tectonic collision and uplift. I have hunted for fossils at the feet of the Sangres since I was a child, amazed each time to find traces of ancient sea-life preserved in sedimentary layers that embody the accumulation of time.

Somewhere below us are stretches of badlands where wind and water have worn down the layers of compressed stone with persistent caress. I know that these strata can be read, with traces of organic life and atmospheric phenomena legible in their mineral makeup. There is a layer that narrates the story of Earth’s collision with an enormous meteor, another that tells of radioactive fallout from nuclear detonations. I wonder what other histories are being inscribed in the land even as I fly over it, transformations taking place on scales and at speeds beyond what I can see or understand. I feel another surge of vertigo. Reading the land in this way, it has become an abstract set of conditions and consequences. I might see the outlines of a larger story, but I am not entirely comfortable with this detachment. I want to preserve the feeling of being grounded, the sense of belonging intimately and reciprocally to the world.

Transformers - Handshake, by Nicola López
Transformers – Handshake, graphite on paper, 40” x 40” (2022), by Nicola López.

I look down again and now there is snow lining the folds of the sky-scraping Rockies and the quilted, agricultural geometry of brown and emerald circles and squares stretching between horizons. Some roads meander to accommodate the curving of hills and winding of rivers, while others cut unforgivingly straight lines of travel and transport. The network of roads tightens and the spaces between fill with parking lots, warehouse roofs, the odd patch of dirt and houses curling tightly around cul-de-sacs. Pools, rivers, ponds, and panels all gleam briefly like ignited jewels as we move above. Denver’s city sprawl begins to throb and I can easily imagine a vast intensification of the density coalescing below me. In my mind’s eye, steel and concrete peaks pierce the sky and massive outcroppings of densely packed detritus loom over rivers of shards. I see endless plains of tightly gridded terrain, steel girders twisted in organic gestures, and steep ravines lined with empty window sockets staring skyward. I am transfixed by this mental mirage: by the sheer scale of transformation, the complex web of forces that must have forged these forms, and by the questions that they pose. I have an urgent desire to embrace and hold this potential world gently, to infuse it with care even though it is hard to imagine how I might navigate either its story or its physical terrain. Perhaps this is where I find the impetus to draw; to exercise care, engagement, and agency; to use graphite to dig into, caress, and prod sheets of paper until images emerge.

ARTerrain Gallery by Nicola López

Images in this gallery may not be copied or otherwise used without express written consent of the artist. Click image to view in larger size.



About the Artist

Nicola LópezNicola López’s work in drawing, printmaking, site-specific installation, sculpture, and video examines and reconfigures our contemporary landscape, pointing to deep connections and rifts between our human-constructed world and systems and cycles of nature. She engages architecture and urban structure as ever-accumulating evidence of human aspirations and failures, often contrasting and intertwining them with geological and organic formations. Her work draws on anthropology, architecture, urban planning, and historical and fictional explorations of utopia/dystopia. It also leans heavily into material process, intentionally bringing joy, improvisation, and care into the work as it reflects on human patterns of extraction and construction.

López has participated in several residencies and received grants and fellowships including a NYFA Fellowship in Drawing/Printmaking/Book Arts, a grant from the Joan Mitchell Foundation, and a Sovern/Columbia Affiliated Fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. Her work is held in numerous prominent institutional collections and has been exhibited throughout the United States and internationally, including at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, and Guggenheim Museum in New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museo Rufino Tamayo in Mexico City; Denver Art Museum; Nevada Museum of Art; Albuquerque Museum; and Inside-Out Museum in Beijing.

Find more of Nicola López’s work at

All images courtesy Nicola López. Header image: Transformers – Coiled, graphite on paper, 40” x 40” (2023).


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