BOOBs & BAT Hit Bridgeport This Weekend

 A detail from Sooo-z Mastropietro's  Boob-Tube.  Photo courtesy City Lights. 

A detail from Sooo-z Mastropietro's Boob-Tube. Photo courtesy City Lights. 

Bridgeport-based graffiti artist, fashion designer, and painting instructor Jahmane slipped a key into the lock of an unoccupied 1163 Main St. storefront early on a high, fine October afternoon. He had agreed to show off the then work-in-progress Panels exhibition, ahead of the ninth annual Bridgeport Art Trail.

Inside, eight-foot plywood boards ringed the room’s walls, all gingerly propped against protective swatches of sheer plastic sheeting. Spaced at even intervals, each piece of plywood sported graffiti projects at varying stages of completion. Spray cans, industrial buckets, and pots and tubes of paint had been gathered into tidy piles nearby.

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Organized by Bridgeport arts organization City Lights on the weekend of Nov. 9-12, this year’s trail features everything from spoken word and stained glass to monumental film projections and photography across 30 different sites. Itinerant art at the scale of the city, the route encourages Bridgeport locals and Nutmeggers more widely to make pilgrimage to six repurposed factories and warehouses throughout town.

A not-for-profit incubator and exhibition space, City Lights presents emerging neighborhood artists, hosts classes and demonstrations, and manages a small thrift store out of their old, temporary home on Bridgeport’s Main Street. It is run by executive director Suzanne Kachmar with a small staff and board.

“We have to prove to the tri-state area that there’s a lot of great art here.” Kachmar said. She operates the yearly Art Trail on what she terms ‘The Horton Hears a Who! factor’: “If we all get together and scream and make some noise—we’ll get noticed!”

City Lights’ most recent exhibition BOOBs, up through Dec. 12, is a pillar on the 2017 trail. A collection of sculpture and painting largely in support of breast cancer patients, BOOBs popped up as a boulevard-long clothesline installation of sequined, embroidered, and collaged ‘art bras.’ The pieces came out of two ‘art bra’ parties, organized by Art Bra New Haven, during which attendees embellished their articles of lingerie. 

Entitled “7 Ages of Woman,” after a quote from Shakespeare’s “All the World’s a Stage” monologue, this “laundry line of life” is taking over City Lights’ Golden Hill Street steps, festooning the avenue’s wrought-iron fencing and lampposts with undergarments and solar-powered pink lightbulbs. Kachmar additionally organized trail-time talks around the intersection of art and medicine, partnering with faculty at the St. Vincent’s Breast Health Center.

 One of the "art bras" hitting the trail this weekend. 

One of the "art bras" hitting the trail this weekend. 

Kachmar said she considers BOOBs a familiarization exercise. “Some people have a hard time with nudity,” she said. “Some people have a hard time with body image. We need to get comfortable!”

She described how ‘boob’ was a provocative, titillating word that wasn’t entirely offensive to the conservative or the shy. Kachmar pointed out that it has a wide semantic range: ‘boob’ can equally refer to someone who isn’t that smart.

“Here we are in 2017 and women are still having to fight for respect,” said Kachmar. “There were a few ‘boobs’ who inspired this show!”

The title first aims to bring people in, and next to bring them to the table. If Kachmar turns people off with a stronger word and a more radical theme, “then I can’t have a conversation.”

She recounted some of that dialogue. In one scenario, Kachmar told men that, “Yes, we’re having a hands-on workshop.” The men gleefully and cheekily replied: “Oh—we like that!”

 Artist kHyal™’s “MegaGlam Breast Augmentation” trench coat on the artist. Photo Courtesy City Lights.

Artist kHyal™’s “MegaGlam Breast Augmentation” trench coat on the artist. Photo Courtesy City Lights.

Other visitors remained skeptical of the art on display. Kachmar said some pointed away from a work like Sooo-Z Mastropietro’s “BOOB-Tube”—a plush, single breast on a plinth—claiming “that doesn’t really look like a boob.”

They turned instead towards the chest of the hot-pink mannequin sporting artist kHyal™’s “MegaGlam Breast Augmentation” trench coat.

That looks like a boob.”

Mastropietro originally trained as a surgical technician. Commissioned especially for BOOBs, the artist’s “BOOB-Tube” has roots in her earlier “Hue-ation” canvasses. Mastropietro represented real-life video of cancerous biopsies as a network of cloth coils fastened to the picture plane. On view behind “BOOB-Tube,” “Hue-ation’s” varicolored reliefs mostly captured the ant-farm look of blood cells coursing through a still-live slice of tissue under the clinician’s glass microscope slide.

“BOOB-Tube” frees these forms from the wall, and casts them fully into three dimensions. Mastropietro mounted tiny rolls of flesh-toned fabric along a translucent, dome-shaped plastic armature, rendering a nipple at the mound’s center in pinks and pale purple. Sinuous, brightly-colored pipettes of fabric explode out the boob’s back end. Their baroque, curving lengths reprise coiled party noise-makers, DNA base pairs unzipped by a helicase.

The piece gets its name from the cathode ray set that lights the sculpture from below. A black-and-white staticky snow peeks past the gaps in the assemblage, flickering and pulsing.

A lone boob on a pedestal, bathed by a strange and uncanny light, “BOOB-Tube” feels at home in a long tradition of medieval and Renaissance art that painted slain virgins holding their severed breasts on shimmering, silver salvers. Now, breast cancer patients represent a kind of contemporary communion of saints—martyrs of modern medical science.

 Dustin DeMilo's  Main & State, 1998.  Photo Courtesy City Lights. The work is on view during this year's art trail. 

Dustin DeMilo's Main & State, 1998. Photo Courtesy City Lights. The work is on view during this year's art trail. 

“Our breasts are our marker,” said Kachmar. When women lose them to cancer, “our identity can be called into question.”

In the exhibition, artist kHyal™ seeks to unravel this iconography: to demystify the boob, to show viewers how it works in American culture today, and uncouple it from womanhood. Her “MegaGlam Breast Augmentation” trench coat—accessorized with a matching pair of leggings and mesh baseball cap—repeats a half-breast motif across a drab, khaki disruption pattern.

The half-breast peeks out weirdly from under the desert camouflage’s brown bars. The breast’s two, stacked pink circles slip behind the pattern while the bright red nipple is laid over it, giving the unsettling impression that the camo has partially guillotined kHyal™’s boob.

The tongue-in-cheek clothing line, which first debuted at ArtBasel Miami, takes cues from Op Art or Soviet avant-garde textile design. It defeats the breast fetish by gratifying it—making viewers sick and tired of it. By mapping this hidden object of masculine desire so completely and so aggressively over a female body, kHyal™ points out how fashion conceals the breast to reveal it. She disrupts and calls attention to the openly-secretive ogling of boobs.

“If you see it so much,” offered Kachmar more directly, “it just becomes a pattern. If I ate chocolate all day, I wouldn’t want it anymore.”

 Work by Jahmane. Courtesy of the artist. 

Work by Jahmane. Courtesy of the artist. 

But BOOBs is hardly the only pull on the Art Trail. Local lessors readily invite artists into creaky, old properties around town: raw retail space still under renovation, and an abandoned YWCA’s indoor swimming pool.

“The developers in the city—they’re very supportive,” said Kachmar. “The growth of the arts is reflective of the growth of the city. It’s not unusual if you do a good thing that it might become the commercial destiny of the site.”

Back in his exhibition space, painter Jahmane echoed Kachmar’s assessment of landlords. “They just gave us the key and trusted us to do our thing.”

Walking along the Main St. shop floor, Jahmane explained how the show would gather together “something like 11 or 12” contributing artists. He said that the panels of Panels began their life as construction material sheathing the very building where he now worked. Under Bridgeport’s previous mayor, Bill Finch, Jahmane had curated murals for the scaffolding along that whole block.

“When they took the boards down, we thought: ‘Why not use these as canvases?’ It’s like a recycling, or a progression from exterior to interior. Street art has evolved—gone inside!”

Jahmane described how water-based aerosols helped facilitate this shift towards a more intimate, studio-based graffiti practice. He had previously used these less odorous colors in his Graffiti 101 course out at Bridge Academy.

“That helps some guys—switching over from the spray paint.”

Jahmane added that he appreciates the co-working environment at 1163 Main, and that he hopes to reactivate the space after the Art Trail for workshops and professional development.

“People come in here at night while artists are working on their pieces,” he said. “Just seeing how other people work helps you work!”

In its own way, BOOBs provides a pendant to the larger narrative of revitalization told on the 2017 Bridgeport Art Trail. Confronted with the cancer of urban renewal—a process that tends to tear a community apart in order to make it over—the arts created a caring cohort of well-wishers and civic caretakers.

“We’re finding a way to work together,” said Kachmar. “The competition could destroy us. How do we equitably support each other and survive?”

“That’s what I think every arts movement needs,” Jahmane added. “That momentum of everybody coming together.”

BOOBs runs through Dec. 12, 2017. The ninth annual Bridgeport Art Trail runs from Thursday Nov. 9 through Sunday Nov. 12. More information here