The Blends Gallery at the corner of Main and Golden Hill streets is so new it had to race to get its inaugural exhibit up in time for this year’s Bridgeport Art Trail weekend.
It was a close race, too. With just two weeks to go before the gallery’s scheduled Nov. 10 opening, many of the exhibit’s 11 main pieces by 11 different artists were still works in progress. Most pieces leaned against walls, resting on polyethylene drop sheets, where paint cans and brushes, spray canisters and rags were stacked to be near at hand.
All the artists fit within the gallery’s urban contemporary focus and go by street aliases, some singular like Distort, Dooley-O, Sketch and ES. The graffiti-inspired names are poor predictors of their art though. The exhibit pieces vary widely in style, from plainly figurative (Distort’s portrait of two somber women in blue guarded or leered at by a bulldog) to purely abstract (Dooley-O’s field of orange cut by faint lines).
The common denominator, which can be almost too obvious to register, is all the pieces are the same large size. The artists weren’t painting on canvas; they were painting on sheets of plywood that once had held a mural covering the storefront facade of 1163 Main St. Brought inside and reused — just as canvases always have been reused by studio painters — the plywood explains why the exhibit is titled “Panels” and how the Blends Gallery got its name.
About four years ago, the two artists who are the gallery’s managers, Jahmane, of Norwalk, and Michael J Clocks, of Bridgeport, were engaged in painting outdoor murals along that section of Main Street that was then and still is awaiting redevelopment. One day, an owner of the Main Street building stopped by, saw them at work and asked them to do a mural for him.
He happened to be Tim Schipper, co-owner of Colorblends, one of Bridgeport’s more unlikely businesses. Founded in 1912 in the Netherlands, it imports flower bulbs, mainly tulips, to a warehouse on Barnum Avenue. It also operates the Colorblends House and Garden on Clinton Avenue, where Michael J Clocks has become a resident artist overseeing spring-time pop-up exhibits. Stored in the basement are artifacts Schipper hopes to eventually display in a tulip museum he envisions for the Main Street property. In the meantime, there will be the art gallery, one intended to bring street art inside and also bring it the respect it deserves. The three men began planning it only a few months ago.
“We didn’t have to name it Blends. But Blends is a common graffiti term. It’s a technique you use,” Jahmane says. “The idea of the whole gallery we’d like to stick with is evolved urban art or evolved street art. The irony of the gallery taking place directly across the street from where we were creating murals shows the evolution of street art, which until recent years was something shunned or looked down on as just a sub-culture.”Read Full Article
Now, he says, it’s seen as a global phenomenon and collectible. Banksy is the street artist most recognized by the general public, but Jahmane cites other major artists operating in Banksy’s shadow, like Shepard Fairey, whose image of Barack Obama was used on his 2008 “Hope” campaign poster, and Revok, who has had international shows and makes abstract assemblages from objects found in the street.
Jahmane says that early street artists adopted aliases in place of their “government names” because they wanted to be known, but didn’t want to risk arrest if what they were doing was illegal. (His own surname is West.)
“The key was to get up as much as possible, to make your name as famous as possible … and then from that it became, ‘What do I want to say now that I have an audience?’ There’s a certain amount of power to that,” Jahmane says.
His quick history of street art makes one realize its young practitioners put themselves forward like bloggers and YouTube performers later would. Except the street artists were physically tied to their neighborhood, while the digital performers were completely untethered.
Now street artists may have formal training. Jahmane studied art at Norfolk State University and has taught “Graffiti 101” at the Bridge Academy charter school in Bridgeport. Like other artists, he does not limit himself to painting. Besides teaching, he also writes, does photography and has a fashion line called Kultjah Dezigns.
His artwork is done in several styles, including figurative paintings in acrylic on canvas. His “Panels” exhibit piece resembles a pop-art, mixed-media collage. It incorporates images of historical posters, a dart board pinned with Donald Trump photos and is slashed with house and spray paints. He says it is part of series he calls Mentalchemy meant to stimulate conversation and that he still might add or alter some details.
Further from being finished was the piece his gallery partner, Michael J Clocks, was working on. It lay on the floor, an abstract design painted on the plywood, overlaid with what appeared to be aluminum machine parts.
Visitors to the Colorblends House spring shows will have seen his signature work: intricate sculptures full of gears and other mechanisms that may look like the inner-workings of fantastic clocks, and sometimes incorporate real clocks. But he also paints and says his piece for the gallery opening is his first attempt to combine the two. The painted plywood, he says, will give his recycled metal parts “an environment to live in.”
None of the three men can predict the gallery’s future, except that in the beginning it won’t have regular hours and probably will be used for pop-up shows and events. “We’ll see where it goes and take it year by year,” Michael J Clocks says. “We want to activate the space.”
Schipper says when he bought the Colorblends house in 2013 he thought of it as a fixer-upper project. Then he met Michael J and then, immaculately restored, it turned into a pop-up art gallery. As with the house, he will see what evolves on Main Street.
“It’s all Jahmane and Michael,” Schipper says. “There’s no master plan. If I don’t bump into these guys then I don’t have a gallery. I’m lucky they’re into it. We’re trying to figure out downtown.”
Joel Lang is an award-winning Connecticut journalist and frequent contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.