Atlanta has recently enjoyed an explosion of grass roots public art events. The Living Walls conference and exhibit August 12-14 imported international and national street artists to create murals around the city. And on September 30, Flux, the one night only event featuring dance, sculpture, film, installation art and performance comes to Castleberry Hill.
Now the City of Atlanta has made an effort to use a comparably ambitious, multifaceted public art event “Elevate/Art Above Underground” to transform the urban landscape into an al fresco gallery along the Upper Alabama Street corridor and surrounding streets near Underground Atlanta.
The project is made possible by the City of Atlanta Office of Cultural Affairs Public Art Program and the Percent-for-Art Program, which uses 1.5 percent of the proceeds from municipal capital construction projects to fund public art works.
“Elevate” runs through October 30, which means in addition to video works, photography, sculpture and other long-term art works by more than 27 artists on view during the 66 day run, there will be an ever-changing roster of performances during the project’s life span. The work runs the gamut, from an installation of video works by students at the Savannah College of Art and Design called “Zygosis,” whose beacons of pulsating light and music drew the attention of passersby like moths to a flame, to a concrete sculpture “Memory Totem” by Lillian Blades that children decorated with pieces of mirror, ceramic tiles and found objects to combinations of poetry and photographs organized by the grass roots Atlanta art cooperative WonderRoot placed at intervals around the Underground streetscape.
When evening falls, “Elevate’s" presence is signaled by a light installation by Georgia State University sculpture professor Ruth Stanford that sends a searchlight into the night sky. Called “Promise,” the piece evokes the spectacles of movie premieres and store openings.
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Because the downtown cityscape with its sidewalk merchants, river of pedestrians, advertisements and traffic is such a frenzied, visual cacophony, the most engaging projects tend to be the ones, like Stanford’s that can compete within the urban fracas. Sarah Emerson’s vinyl window installation “Zero Mile” in empty shop windows at the corner of Alabama Street and Central Avenue likewise commands attention, especially when it is lit from behind at night, making its Disney-colorful scene of a cartoon-whimsical forest glow like stained glass.
Some of the most successful, jaw-dropping works delight for their attention-grabbing scale and technical chops. The most arresting works in “Elevate” appear because of the involvement of Living Walls’ organizer Monica Campana, who has a knack for finding street artists with a sense of grandeur and an ability to make savvy use of urban architecture. Three of those murals appear in “Elevate.” Most prominent among the murals is a spectacular piece by Spanish artist Sam3 that snakes up the side of the 16-story Comfort Suites building on Alabama Street, whose management deserves a commendation for offering up their real estate for this stunning work. Sam3’s black silhouette of a man, who evokes folk artist Bill Traylor’s figures, stands out dramatically from the building’s beige facade. With his arms reaching out to the sky above and a painted pipe leading from the top of the building into the man’s body, he appears to implore the heavens for water or, perhaps, some spiritual sustenance. Artwork with a political message is a rare occurrence in Atlanta, which makes it all the more exciting to see artist Escif’s painting of a fire extinguisher in bright red on the side of a Pryor Street parking deck. The artist has inscribed the iconic yellow stars of the Chinese flag onto the red extinguisher, and offered the inscription at the base “Emergency Only,” suggesting the Asian superpower should only be unleashed when all else fails.
“Elevate” is encouraging evidence that the Office of Cultural Affairs is wisely tapping into the city’s flourishing grass roots arts energy. But one of the most transgressive aspects of “Elevate” is how it transforms an economic downturn bummer of vacant storefronts, into a positive, allowing them to live again as showcases for art. If only more Atlanta landlords would support this kind of re-use during hard times.
“Elevate/Art Above Underground”
Through October 30
Various locations around Underground Atlanta
75 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, S.W.
www.ocaatlanta.com/public-art and http://elevateatlanta.blogspot.com