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Sprawl city

Curb Appeal captures Atlanta's mishmash of developments

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The poor, disdained suburb. The popular perceptions of this reviled human-made geography is of a haven of like-minded architecture and like-minded people. The postwar idealism of Levittowns and affordable homes for regular people has given way to a lip-curling disdain that anyone could ever set their sights so low.

Curb Appeal: The Marketing of Sprawl tends to hold to the party line in matters of suburbia, appraising the cul-de-sac set with a cynical eye. Unlike work such as Bill Owens' photographs, which pay tribute to the actual people who make tract homes and cul-de-sac, their haunts, local artist Sam Hill's Curb Appeal nips at the heels of developers who promise a McMansion for every middle-income family and the eager occupants who clamber for their 1/2-acre slice of the American pie.

Sam Hill's images of violently tilled soil, rows of under-construction homes and billboards imploring "grow" mimic the look and feel of advertisements and promotional brochures that sell glossy fantasies of the new, pristine home of one's own. Hill's large photographs have a real feel for the monumentality of such promotional images, which often use low angles to make McMansions seem like enormous pleasure palaces and postage stamp front lawns appear as elysian fields.

Juicing up the color scheme to emphasize the intense red clay and cobalt blue skies, much of the work has a hallucinogenic feel. Something just ain't right in many of the images, which undermine the punchy colors of advertising to suggest an enthusiasm pushed into the absurd. The skies are simply too blue, and an ironic, nearly ominous attitude is conveyed in signs that warn: "This site has been sprayed with polymer." Most eerily, there is no sign of any human occupants in these images, where bulldozers stand at the ready and avenues have a ghost town desolation. Hill reinforces how places made for human consumption are essentially opposed to the human element. Development, as Hill's project asserts, is betwixt and between; it's made for people, but it has a uniform, inflexible, bullying idea of what human beings want.

But there are several images in Curb Appeal that suggest a deeper strain to the work than simple suburb-bashing. In "Manifest Destiny," the bare lumber skeleton of one unfinished home sits in the foreground. In the background, a lush, tiny green lawn gleams next to an immaculate, multi-level house like a wonderful "After" shot. Hill is wise to focus on these gestures of flux since so much of Atlanta's investment in development tends to focus on the ideas, the conception, the planning. End results tend to be a little less magical and far less utopian. Like advertising, which offers a retreating, transfixing mirage, these images indicate the gap between a dream in process and the final, more unexciting and grounded reality.

Hill's images also have a feel for some of the nutty juxtapositions of the non- suburban Atlanta landscape. In a shot of the condominiums that hug the intersection of the I-75/85 and Freedom Parkway, pastel row houses are plunked down incongruously next to metallic, gleaming skyscrapers in a bizarre mishmash of unfinished decks, vinyl siding and modernity's temples to progress.

The image typifies the Atlanta approach to development, of willy-nilly aesthetics, contradictory urges, freakish outcomes and a cityscape that can incorporate John Portman and Cracker Barrel, front porches and parking lots into one mad jumble.

Curb Appeal: The Marketing of Sprawl runs through June 29 at Artshow, 314 N. Highland Ave. Thurs.-Sat. 6-9 p.m. 404-524-1244.

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