Artists muse on nature, mortality and the spaces inhabited by our conscious and unconscious lives in new shows at three Minneapolis venues. As always, the big concepts appear in elusive, often poetic objects — theatrical Italian cityscapes, animal photos, surrealistic furniture, wall-sized drawings, a “death wish” contract, a hand-drawn film of South Dakota’s Badlands. Mysterious stuff.

Weinstein Gallery

At his studio outside Milan, Italy, photographer/painter Paolo Ventura builds dioramas of imaginary cities, photographs them, then paints and collages the photos. Assembled into big puzzle-like vistas, his “La Città Infinita” — the infinite city — is an enigmatic place, a cinematic dreamscape populated by lonely, often sinister characters.

Showcased at the 2012 Venice Biennale, Ventura is widely exhibited in Europe, but this is his first American exhibit outside New York. (Recently, he designed an acclaimed set for the Chicago Lyric Opera’s production of the musical “Carousel.”)

Painted mostly in taupe and gray, his scenes recall the still lifes of Giorgio Morandi and the surrealistic cityscapes of Giorgio de Chirico with their empty streets, dark arcades and skewed perspectives. In Ventura’s cities, boxy Soviet-style towers recede into the distance, their shuttered windows suggesting surveillance but seeing and revealing nothing. Dark-clad men meet furtively in cul-de-sacs, flames leap from a window, an “anarchist” knifes an opponent, a magician pulls a rabbit from a hat, bridges connect to nothing, a maze beckons. Like their theatrical roots, Ventura’s scenes are soulfully operatic and a bit over the top.

Noon-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat. Ends Nov. 14; free. 908 W. 46th St., Mpls. 612-822-1722;

Minneapolis College of Art and Design

As winners of Jerome Foundation grants, the five “emerging” artists whose work is on view at MCAD each received $12,000 plus professional advice and an exhibition opportunity. Although their work is highly individualistic, they share a seriousness of purpose that is thoughtfully amplified in the show’s insightful catalog by Jane Blocker, a University of Minnesota art historian.

Photographer Miranda Brandon, well known locally for her photos of birds that died crashing into windows, attempts to provoke a deeper appreciation of nature by providing information about the habitats, life cycles and population status (stable, endangered) of six animals (prairie dog, Indiana bat, etc.). She even has free “paper dolls” of the critters for people to place in suitable environments for contemplation and study.

As “social practice” art, a hot new thing, Brandon’s winsome project is nicely complemented by Regan Golden-McNerney’s 30-foot-wide “mural” of cutout photos and drawings of plants common to Midwestern urban environments. Lush colors, crisp details and abrupt scale shifts enhance the mural’s impact.

Jess Hirsch’s meditation on death is a more hermetic affair involving contracts, floral essences, strange potions and most likely a belief system that’s dependent in part on explanations she provides in occasional performances.

The sculptures of Sieng Lee and Jason Ramey are, by comparison, straightforward, though by no means simple. Ramey cleverly redesigns mundane discards — chests, mantel pieces — into surrealist but still functional furniture.

As a first-generation Hmong American, Lee deftly — and yet subtly — suggests his cultural heritage in a rough wooden cube that embodies the bare-bones survival of a refugee and the refined minimalism of contemporary sculpture. Cascading from the crate are hundreds of leaflike boats made from “spirit money.” Shaped into a conical “Christmas tree,” the boats nod to Lee’s heritage and the immigrant’s undefined future.

9 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat., noon-5 p.m. Sun. Ends Nov. 8; free. 2501 Stevens Av. S., Mpls.; 612-874-3700;

Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

Catherine Meier and Jamie Kinroy employ drawing to grandiose effect in the MAEP galleries at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

A cartoonist at heart, the Edinburgh-born Kinroy makes intensely detailed drawings — including a whole wall — of what he calls “Edgeworlds.” Reminiscent of American shopping malls or big box stores, they are anonymous, contemporary environments crammed with stuff — lawn chairs, trash cans, light fixtures, signs, barbecues, Santa lights, ethnic trinkets, pets, people, palm trees and power cords. As in modern life, there are no hierarchies of taste, utility, heritage, faith, geography or common sense. Just stuff and more stuff. Well done and depressingly hilarious.

In the gallery next door, Meier reports from the Sage Creek campground in South Dakota’s Badlands National Park. Over the course of four years she drew the mesas, gullies, eroded cliffs and vast prairies punctuated by long grass, tumbleweed and lightning. She captures their grandeur in a small book of intensely colored, nearly abstract paintings of light fading into night, and in a hand-drawn film that’s projected onto a wall. There her pencil sketches unfold as if executed by an invisible hand, the grasses swaying under bare skies of infinite depth — mesmerizing in their silent beauty.

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Wed. and Sat., 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thu.-Fri., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun. Ends Jan. 3; free. 2400 3rd Av., Mpls.; 612-870-3000;