ATLANTIC CITY - Described in words, art projects can often sound unlikely, if not impossible, but this one was immediately and alluringly odd: a new art park in Atlantic City on a seven-acre plot where the distinguished Traymore Hotel held court for nearly a century before being razed in 1972.
Not only that, the art park in question was the first of several transformations being imagined by Lance Fung, a New York-based independent curator, for the city's vacant lots. Those are part of "Artlantic," a five-year public art project launched by the Atlantic City Alliance, in partnership with the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.
Most curious of all - or, perhaps, in yet another recent stunning example of A.C. chutzpah - the public debut of the project's first exhibition, "Artlantic: Wonder," was taking place a week after Sandy's pummeling. Who could say no?
What was said to have been a glaringly forlorn lot front and center in the city for decades now has a distinctively swooping design that evolved from Fung's conversations with landscape designer Diana Balmori.
From a typically flat coastal landscape, two sod-covered, terraced hills rise up dramatically, simultaneously evoking an emerald-green amphitheater, certain ambitious earthworks of the 1970s, and the looping forms of roller coasters. (I'd also throw in Indonesian rice fields and Mayan ruins.) The hills and their "valleys" of this "Pinnacle site" are inhabited by works by Robert Barry, the husband-and-wife artist team Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, and Kiki Smith (a second site, on the Boardwalk, has been given to a work by the environmental artist John Roloff). All are internationally known artists, but emerging artists will also be considered as Fung develops his project's other sites.
At varying diagonals around the circumference of one hill, Barry has positioned immense words, among them Possible, Becoming, and Wonder, made up of sheet-metal channel letters with colored Plexiglas lenses and LED lights that glow in the dark. They seem, of all of these artists' contributions, most obviously relevant to a city of casino and Boardwalk signage. They also encourage a walk around the hill. Looking upward and sideways at Barry's words, you see views of the Atlantic City skyline from various perspectives. If it's a metaphor for Fung's mission writ large, it couldn't be better said.
On a flat expanse, plantings of red-foliaged perennials and red-berried shrubs encircle Smith's cast-bronze, charcoal-colored sculpture of a standing nude female figure cradling a dead doe in her arms. It's a somewhat traditional figurative sculpture for Smith, and its image is clearly a human embrace of the natural world, but it projects a solemnity that outweighs its sentimentality. It also stands out in sharp relief in its isolated sanctuary.
Treasures, the nearly life-size wooden pirate ship that Ilya and Emilia Kabakov had constructed for this exhibition, is partially sunk into the ground to evoke an excavation. The work muses on greed, the lure and pitfalls of gambling, pirate tales, and the immigrant's desire to succeed in America. It's the only kids-friendly sculpture - they and you can walk on it - and, like Smith's sculpture, makes a statement that is readily accessible to those not necessarily conversant with contemporary art.
At the second Artlantic location, on the Boardwalk, John Roloff's enormous performance platform/sculpture/painting, Etude Atlantis, is painted to give the illusion of being a three-dimensional architectural form and its shadows (I'm guessing the supports beneath the Boardwalk may have inspired his painting). It was not complete when I saw it - water elements had yet to be put in place - but it made a memorable backdrop for dancers from the Atlantic City Ballet.
It's impossible to see a project like this in a city much smaller than our own and not wish for more outdoor venues here that would be devoted specifically to sculpture and installation and the human contemplation of it. How about an art park on the Delaware River between casinos that would draw art lovers and gamblers alike? That strikes me as a good bet for everyone.
Pinnacle site, Pacific Avenue between South Martin Luther King Boulevard and South Indiana Avenue; Etude Atlantis site, Atlantic City Boardwalk between South California and South Belmont Avenues.