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Idyllic may be a common adjective for San Diego, but it doesn't apply to its arts scene. Instead, words like eclectic and unexpected fit that bill better.

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Nature goes indoors with Maya Lins wooden knoll at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego
Idyllic may be a common adjective for San Diego, but it doesn't apply to its arts scene. Instead, words like eclectic and unexpected fit that bill better.

After all, the naval town is a 20-mile drive from the U.S.-Mexico border, and the popular tourist destination Balboa Park boasts no fewer than 15 museums that cover everything from local sports heroes to the solar system.

Internationally renowned artists like Robert Irwin and Philipp Rittermann also prefer San Diego to Los Angeles, which has made its mark as an international art capital with legions of residing artists.

"We're not L.A., but there are some really interesting things happening in San Diego," confirmed Stephanie Hanor, senior curator for the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

With two locations in downtown San Diego and the nearby beachside community of La Jolla, the museum reflects the far reaches of artists' creativity, ranging from Maya Lin's large-scale wooden knolls to Bruce Nauman's neon wall drawings.

In a nod to San Diegans' love of the outdoors, Nancy Rubins piled rowboats, canoes, Jet Skis and surfboards into a shipwreck-style sculpture that juts out of the La Jolla museum's roof.

"Artists work with all materials and all themes," Hanor explained.

To review artwork that is more personal, visitors can drop by the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park to see portraits by Lee Friedlander and Fredric Roberts. There's also a show titled "Flesh" by South African photographer Gary Schneider, who enlarged images of a trumpet vine, a retina and a man's ear to explore the concept of beauty inside and out.

"All of this we have in ourselves but we never saw it. [Schneider] brought it to light," said Carol McCusker, curator at the Museum of Photographic Arts.

The same could be said for San Diego's arts.
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