Shona Macdonald’s abstracted landscapes at the Chicago Cultural Center are precisely detailed and otherworldly. Each of the more than 100 shapes in Isles #1 looks like a different protozoan, and variable shadings add to their strangeness. The forms in Mountains, Craters, Shells seem to rise together out of emptiness: as if in an alchemical reaction, small creates large. From an early age Macdonald thought of nature as enchanted. Born in the Scottish city of Aberdeen, she often visited her grandfather on his small farm, where he kept bees and chickens, living in a stone cottage he’d built on land overlooking Loch Ness. “It was a magical storybook world,” she says. “And he was incredibly gentle and sweet to us. But I found him kind of scary, a wild uncivilized country guy.” By elementary school, Macdonald was painting detailed foliage for a school mural. And by her early teens she was bicycling into the countryside to sketch realistic landscapes.

Isles #1 (1998) was inspired by a retired architect’s book of aerial sketches of 166 islands off Scotland’s west coast, some of which Macdonald had visited. In the Outer Hebrides, she says, “there are no trees, it’s just rock everywhere–houses built on rocks. I felt like I was looking much more attentively at everything–the colors, the rocks.” She loved the book’s drawing style, which recalled medieval maps, and began sketching the islands from a topographic map. But before that, her experiences at three different art schools over seven years interrupted her natural inclination to depict the land. She reacted to the Glasgow School of Art, which was largely devoted to figurative work, by doing what she calls “pretty bad” surrealist still lifes that often included coffinlike boxes. When she went to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale for grad school, her response to American culture was to make “collage-type paintings” that included “Americana-like Liberty Bells and American flags.” Transferring to the University of Illinois at Chicago, she encountered French deconstructionist theory. The readings and discussions got her thinking: “If you’re laying down a surface, what are the ramifications of it?” Then Macdonald was “blown away” by a Vija Celmins retrospective in London. “She’s got this incredibly controlled technique, which she uses to make work about the space around her without being sentimental.” Macdonald began exorcising the figure from her own art. After receiving her MFA in 1996 she worked as studio assistant for Buzz Spector, who was ripping the pages of books. Returning to Scotland for six months, she worked in a corporate mail room, where she began saving the envelopes from junk mail–“I don’t know why,” she says. Back in Chicago, she tore them into strips for abstract collages she thought of as landscapes or seascapes. Meanwhile the last remnants of figurative work in her art–fragmented body parts–began “morphing into landscapes.”

In 1998 Macdonald began commuting weekly from Chicago to Bloomington to teach at Illinois State University. “I would drive past these fields every week, while the snow outside my Logan Square window was turning black from fumes.” In 2001 she decided “to make this really unpleasant experience of driving back and forth into something pleasant.” For Route 55 she traced I-55’s line again and again and added little trees–camping symbols from the map she used–and bodies of water at the periphery. This year she made Illinois Unfurled as Field, Snow, Lake, dominated by a trapezoidal field of white, gray, and black shapes. First she traced the outline of Illinois on a map. Then she cut the line, taped its pieces back together in a straighter line, and traced it again and again, using the state boundary’s small curves to make lines that she filled in with shades of gray. The trees atop it are fractal, their shapes repeated in their branches.

“Because my work is laborious to make,” Macdonald says, “my mind wanders and I start thinking about being in different places, about places I’ve been in Scotland. I find it much easier to make images when I have a system I can work from. When I draw a line or an island, the slowness of transcribing that information is almost like walking across a piece of land.”

Shona Macdonald

When: Through Sun 1/15

Where: Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington

Info: 312-346-3278