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Public art gets a boost from Ukeles

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Artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, 63, was recently in Atlanta for a galvanizing lecture at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center as part of the Fulton County Arts Council's celebration of a decade of public art in the city. White-haired and robust, Ukeles suggested a dignified but impassioned turn-of-the-century suffragist or birth control crusader -- fires of quiet outrage burned beneath her pleasant demeanor and good humor.

The New York-based artist has spent a lifetime devising inspired public performances, but her most subversive and inspiring may be "Touch Sanitation," a project she completed in 1980 while an unpaid artist-in-residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation. Speaking from Jerusalem, where she is celebrating her daughter's engagement, Ukeles calls it a "revolutionary artwork" and the work she is most proud of. "I created a living connection between myself and an entire urban infrastructure system, in real time and space with real people, that illuminated the complete place of New York City, my home."

The 11-month performance involved Ukeles shaking hands with all 8,500 workers in the sanitation department's five boroughs while saying to each one, "Thank you for keeping New York City alive." That project, about acknowledging and dignifying an ignoble and disdained profession, is only one aspect of an art career that has often been about humanizing work deemed "untouchable" and degraded by the capitalist caste system.

Critic Robert Morgan calls Ukeles' work "sociological street theater" and its most original component seems the way it blends ordinary people, public performance and a very American, very democratic view of the nobility of "common" labor, whether that of the artist, the sanitation worker, the housewife or the New York City firefighters killed in the line of duty, who Ukeles memorialized in her work "Honor 2000."

Since the 1973 publication of his cult book, Wisconsin Death Trip, writer/curator Michael Lesy has become something of the unofficial, self-elected archivist of America's checkered visual history. Wisconsin's hybrid of social history, photography and personal commentary was prototypical, a dark picture of 19th-century small-town Wisconsin where nostalgic memories of Meet Me in St. Louis trolley rides were replaced with spectral visions of suicide, madness and economic ruin.

Lesy recently published another volume of his historical musings and quotidian photographs titled Long Time Coming: A Photographic Portrait of America 1935-1943 (W.W. Norton & Company, $65), which he discussed in a lecture during 2001's Atlanta Celebrates Photography event. This beautifully illustrated volume of 410 images collects only a small fraction of the 145,000 frames of film shot by a legion of well-known (Walker Evans, Gordon Parks) and lesser-known photographers hired through a Roosevelt-era program of the Farm Security Administration to document American life of the '30s and '40s. Next to these intoxicating pictures of everything from carnival girly shows to the prematurely drawn and hollow-eyed victims of the Depression, one of the most fascinating aspects of Long Time is the glimpse it affords of obscure but remarkably talented photographers.

John Vachon is one of Long Time's most fascinating cases, a photographer whose work shares some similarities to Robert Frank, O. Winston Link and Philip-Lorca diCorcia and who specialized in heavenly images of modernity: of people set against the hubbub of city life and the hulking machinery of progress as seen in trains, ships and air-conditioned diners.

Lesy has carved out his usual space for personal fixations in essays that range from illuminating discussions of the photographers involved to all-too-revealing glimpses into Lesy's proprietary, smug dominion over the "truth" of the past. Long Time is far better when the pictures do the talking. Divided into sections such as City Life, Hometowns, Hard Times and Amusements and Distractions, the book's many images are portraits of a Lost America of incomparable sweetness where boys in ironed, crisp overalls with enraptured expressions read books beneath a shade tree.

America, in these images, is as foreign as Afghanistan, a place where elderly men and women toil in fields, where migrant families lay their children out by the roadside to nap beneath a canopy of flies. There is a sense both of unfathomable hard work for little reward and also of luxuriously idle reveries spent on park benches that seem forever lost to our clock-punching modern ways.

The Atlanta Contemporary Art Center will hold a memorial service for Atlanta-based artist Gretchen Hupfel, who took her own life Dec. 14. Hupfel lived in an apartment at the Contemporary and exhibited her work there in group and solo shows on a number of occasions. The memorial will take place Friday, Jan. 17, at 11 a.m. at the Contemporary, 535 Means St. Gallery owner Marcia Wood has also organized a small selection of Hupfel's works, which will be on display at the Contemporary until Feb. 7. For further information, call 404-688-1970, ext. 23.

felicia.feaster@creativeloafing.com

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