ATLANTIC CITY — Off New York Avenue, a previously bare room is transformed into a kaleidoscopic fun room of art installations.
In the middle of it, Mark Chu takes a break.
If you ask the artists who have been painting and sculpting and installing their work beside him this week, he’s in need of one.
“He works at an incredible pace, so he can do things at the last minute,” said Zenith Shah, one of the building’s owners.
Shah recalled a chicken mural Chu painted for the Atlantic City Arts Foundation’s 48 Blocks Initiative, finishing it in two days.
Now, he and nine other visual artists are working on the sixth ARTeriors, an exhibition program that the Arts Foundation has displayed in various empty buildings around the city since 2015.
It opened Friday.
Last week, Chu, who splits his time between New York City and Atlantic City, spent time adding layer after layer of color and texture to his piece — a face that stretches an entire wall from floor to ceiling and pushes out from a smattering of contrasting blues, grays and yellows swirling in amorphous streaks.
He calls it “The Escapee.”
“It comes from the shapes, kind of trying to escape out of the face,” Chu said, “and the more painterly face trying to escape out of this graffiti background.”
On Thursday, wearing flannel and retro reflective Oakley shades pushed on top of his black hair that was pulled back in a bun, Chu and a few of his fellow artists finished up their individual installations. Jameson bottles and spray paint cans occupied tables, and pizza boxes were swept up in dusty piles of the artists’ debris.
For ARTeriors, the foundation pays a nominal materials fee and stipend to local artists and gives them complete creative control. It follows a loose schedule: one exhibition in the first half of the year, one in the second. The current exhibit is open on the weekends until Dec. 16.
The goal is “to call attention to buildings or external spaces in the city of Atlantic City that are ready for their next step, either to be rented or leased or purchased or have someone start a business there or move in,” according to foundation Executive Director Joyce Hagen.
“We set as many artists as we can to create work that they normally would not have the opportunity to create,” she said.
That is especially true for Chu.
At 29, the Australian native with a Columbia master of fine arts degree in fiction writing has been painting for six years and doesn’t have formal education in the practice but is still used to more traditional fine-art gallery spaces — canvasses on walls.
He said he liked the challenge of the cubby-like space he chose. The off-kilter corner of the room he chose forced him to rethink the way he approached the work, settling on a more “street style” that pays tribute to graffiti art.
“I didn’t have anything in mind,” Chu said, “because I think this is all about the space, and it’s important to do something that fits with not only the space but what everyone else is doing, and I think that there’s a busyness about this place.”
So, he made do and adapted. It’s an approach that holds true for the foundation too; they are accustomed to larger event spaces that let artists stretch out. But its planning is contingent on availability and a willingness by owners to let creators in to transform their space.
This year, the pre-opening VIP reception was held last Friday down the block at Cajun barbecue restaurant Bourré to accommodate the number of visitors they expected. A performance group called Sustainable Circus performed on the sidewalk between the venues.
Both the exhibition space and Bourré are within The Orange Loop — consisting of South Tennessee Avenue, South St. James Place and South New York Avenue — an area of downtown Atlantic City that was slated for revitalization efforts and sharing names with the orange squares on the Monopoly board.
Hagen sees art as central to breathing new life into an area, into a city.
“Atlantic City is much more alive and receptive to new ideas than many cities,” she said. “And so there’s a real welcoming atmosphere about what the artists are doing and all of our programs. … And I think it’s because a lot of folks here have an open mind about what the city could become, and they’re excited about what more arts could bring to it.”
Chu, in turn, found inspiration in the city around him.
“I think another thing I wanted to capture was all the different facets in the face have a bit to do with that there are many different types of people in Atlantic City,” he said. “And it’s kind of like you can see, from all these different dimensions, one face.”