It’s Oct. 27, 2017, and you’ve managed to snag a rare window seat during the lunch rush at the Shake Shack on Chapel Street. You free the Shackburger from its greased paper sleeve, and, as you lean in to take your first bite, she catches your eye through the window. From across the street and behind thick, black frames, her hazel eyes glisten with the hint of a coquettish smile as she watches you hasten to chew, swallow and compose yourself. Meanwhile, she raises a magnifying glass to her topless chest, presenting you with her exaggerated and slightly distorted left nipple. Her sharply raised brow questions: Have you checked yourself yet?
She is larger than life in a 5-by-5-foot painting titled “Check,” each of her breasts at least twice the size of a passerby’s head. Centered on one of the busiest bus stops near the New Haven Green, she is impossible to ignore — exactly what New Haven artist Bill Saunders intended when he installed a pop-up exhibition cleverly named “Bust Op” for the second year in a row. In support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the one-day-only exhibition included six monumental paintings of breast cancer survivors and victims that filled up the entirety of the bus station’s glass panels.
“Bust Op” was born from a June 2015 show titled “Don’t Call Me Baby” at Ordinary, a popular tavern on Chapel Street just across from the bus stop. Saunders hid dozens of 5-by-5-inch painted panels in discreet corners of the oakwood interior only visible through a telescope on the bar, forcing viewers to venture into voyeurism to examine the small paintings of large-breasted women. Half of the featured women are from movies by filmmaker Russ Meyer, a pioneer in the “sexploitation” film genre — a subset of the broader “exploitation” genre — known for his unabashed portrayals of dominant, sexually supercharged women. The other half are from “magazines of the time that I think Russ would have approved of,” Saunders said. He believes that Meyer “is the first one that treated women as empowered people rather than objects. He took big-breasted women and put them in powerful roles.” In Meyer’s 1965 cult classic “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!”, three uninhibited go-go dancers drive, kidnap and murder across the Californian desert to a frenetic rhythm, all sporting flimsy blouses, abundant cleavage and Kabuki-style eyebrows. “You don’t want to mess with these girls!” Saunders said with a guffaw.
While painting his panels for “Don’t Call Me Baby,” Saunders discovered another connection among the women in his work: breast cancer. Having watched his own mother’s struggle with her diagnosis, he was inspired to begin a new project. He became even more convinced when, throughout the course of the exhibition, women shared stories from their own battles with breast cancer. One of Saunders’ old friends, Cristina Acampora, opened up about her struggle with the disease and encouraged him to pursue the subject matter more deeply.
The idea resonated with Saunders’ foundational belief that art has a responsibility to engage with the community and resulted in the first iteration of “Bust Op,” which encompassed five large portraits of buxom white women. Exhibited in October 2016 at a bus kiosk on lower Chapel Street, the paintings were labelled with a small sign that included only the title of the exhibition and a tiny pink ribbon in honor of breast cancer awareness. “It reminded me to get checked,” said passerby Maria Ellington, while her young son pointed at the paintings and yelled, “Bee-Bee.” Despite the lack of additional information, “people got it,” Saunders said. “I want to give people more credit.”
This year, Saunders diversified the subjects of his paintings, increasing the representation of women of color and including a black man. Of the seven figures in Saunders’ six paintings, four have starred in exploitation films. Kitten Natividad, Meyer’s longtime partner and Mexican-born film star, is a breast cancer survivor who had a double mastectomy. Lina Romay, portrayed in “In the Headlights,” was a Spanish-born actress, wife of another sexploitation film director and a breast cancer victim. A double portrait, “On the Rail,” depicts Pam Grier and Richard Roundtree, two African-American actors who starred in blaxploitation films and survived breast cancer. By painting these figures, Saunders attempts to address both the lack of diversity in his first version of “Bust Op” and the 1960s American culture of exploitation by taking images from the era and reclaiming them through the lens of breast cancer awareness. “Hopefully the way you perceive the paintings initially gets flipped in your mind when you find out what it’s about and get into the exhibition a little deeper,” he said.
Saunders also included more information about the sickness. Each painting was accompanied by a plaque of facts about the disease, its risk factors and the figure’s personal background. “On the Rail,” for example, was captioned with the disproportionate rate of African American women compared to Caucasian women who die from breast cancer. Another poster, titled “10 Facts about Breast Cancer,” read: “Women’s issues are everybody’s issues.” It concluded: “Get checked out.”
Last year’s exhibition opened smoothly. This year, Deputy Director of the Department of Transportation, Traffic, and Parking Michael Pinto trekked down from City Hall at noon to personally ask Saunders if he had a permit for his exhibition. He didn’t. Pinto requested that Saunders take “Bust Op” down within the hour. After a brief negotiation, Pinto consented to Saunders’ initially scheduled end time of 5 p.m. for unspecified reasons. “This is why you can’t ask for permission for anything in this town,” Saunders said.
This odd encounter between Pinto and Saunders derives from ambiguity surrounding New Haven’s regulation of public art. Pinto asked Saunders to present a permit but did not specify what permit Saunders would have even been able to apply for and later declined to comment on the record. The permit and license center provides applications only for vendors and contractors, a title that is not applicable to Saunders. Moreover, it’s unclear which department, category or process regulates Saunders’ — or anyone’s — public artworks. Public art in New Haven thus exists in an undefined sector.
“To be sure, our TEAM under Mayor Harp’s leadership is not lacking for novel ideas to promote ART like never before,” Andrew Wolf, the city’s director of arts, culture and tourism, wrote in an email. Among the formal platforms that manage public art in New Haven is the Percent for Art program, a statewide initiative that requires at least 1 percent of the city’s construction costs be used to commission a public artwork. More than half of the states in the U.S. now maintain “percent for art” policies, but as Wolf is quick to point out, “New Haven was among the first municipalities in America to initiate this civic gesture.” The program’s goal is to “visually enhance municipal facilities,” according to its mission statement, and would likely not support individual initiatives such as Saunders’ “Bust Op.”
Nonprofit organization Site Projects partners with the city to commission artworks that “enhance New Haven’s cultural heritage and diversity,” according to its website. Its upcoming project is an interactive underground light sculpture to be installed in the underpass between Union Station and New Haven. According to Wolf, these public art initiatives promote “New Haven as a global city in the creative economy.” From his perspective, introducing art to the public is a “civic gesture” that adds capital to New Haven’s global standing.
For Saunders, who introduces “Bust Op” with “nothing is for sale,” art is synonymous with free speech. In 2001, he ran for mayor of New Haven dressed in drag as a member of the “Guilty Party,” an act that he calls his first public art project. A year later, he co-founded a free and inclusive fringe arts festival called Ideat (pronounced “idiot”) Village in response to the city’s annual International Festival of Arts and Ideas, which included events that charged a fee. Ideat Village ran for only three days when it first began in 2002. By 2012, it ran for two full weeks alongside the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.
“Bust Op” is Saunders’ most recent project, and like his previous public art pieces, it showcases his dedication to building a relationship between art and its immediate community. “This is uncommissioned, unsolicited, not part of an organization,” he said. “Just an artist with a message.” In a forum debate on the New Haven Independent’s website, on which Saunders is a frequent participant, he resolutely stated: “Both Scientists and Artists Seek Truth — One is primarily technically based, the other primarily socially based.”
Saunders’ art is “a reaction to the existing power structure.” In New Haven, where 48 percent of the population is low income, Saunders hopes to increase the accessibility of art. The bus stop sits at a prime location with both high foot and vehicular traffic. It is located at the intersection of two of the city’s major social infrastructures, the New Haven Free Public Library and the Green, and at the point of convergence of six different bus routes. As Saunders said, “It’s about engaging the natural environment and this little social stratosphere that’s going on. It’s black, it’s white, it’s rich, it’s poor. It has a perfect crossroad and a great view from being stuck at the light.”
He recognizes the station as a legitimate social entity that best captures a heterogeneous sample of the population. As opposed to museum exhibitors who display their art in spaces that await the attendance of a self-selecting subset of the public, Saunders uses his art to engage with and break through the class divisions implicit in the decision to view art. He stood by the bus stop the entire day, observing the way people reacted (or didn’t react) to “Bust Op.” “When people do engage it, do the double take, say something, that’s when you have the chance to pull ’em in a little bit, show them around, get ’em interested a little bit more,” he said. He hopes these interactions foster an active and personal relationship with art.
Still, even if Saunders’ intent is to raise awareness for breast cancer, he is a man painting women’s bodies. Might he be, in turn, only continuing the sexploitation of women? Four of the six women depicted are topless, their tan torsos accentuated with strokes of vibrant pink, yellow and orange paint. With so much bare skin on display, the exhibition was undoubtedly provocative. In “La Natividad Roja (The Pink Nativity),” the woman is painted from such a dramatically low angle that even though she isn’t topless, her breasts are still the focal point of the symmetrical painting. Against a background of electric blue, the fuchsia frills — too bright to be breast-cancer pink — attract even more attention to her chest.
“It is bizarre in this Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken world that it’s a white man doing this,” Saunders acknowledged. However, he believes his work stands on its own merits. “I think the collection with the text is undismissable,” Saunders said. “It’s special; it crosses gender, race, and culture.” His ex-wife Diana Mercer, who introduced him to Meyer’s sexploitation movies, agreed. “I don’t think the fact that he’s a white guy should be held against him,” Mercer said.
“He’s got a real sense for people who are underrepresented and who are disenfranchised by the system,” co-founder of Ideat Village Nancy Shea added. “Once you start reading the story behind the women and men he’s painted, that’s where the awareness comes in.”
Saunders acknowledges his own responsibility to treat the paintings “in a way that isn’t exploitation” and to do justice to the women themselves and to the disease. In “Strike or Spare,” a nude woman in profile leans forward while her right arm extends powerfully behind her as she prepares to send the bowling ball — actually a spherical mass of 3D mammography — rolling. She is nude, yes, her hanging breasts on full display, but it is the concentration furrowed in her eyebrows and the power that manifests in the contours of her taut muscles that really capture the viewer’s attention. The painting’s accompanying yellow text provides information about women’s preventative health care options: “Through the [Affordable Care Act], all insurance companies are mandated to provide free access to annual/bi-annual mammograms for women over 40, as well as other preventative services like cervical cancer screening, sexually transmitted disease testing and contraception.”
In “Half Mast,” the woman’s chest is bare except for a halter-neck top fashioned out of a gauzy strip of fabric so thin as to reveal her right breast and left-side scar, presumably from a single mastectomy. She holds a book up to her face, half-hidden behind absurdly large sunglasses. She stands so nonchalantly that from across the street, you might mistake her for a woman reading as she simply waits for the bus.
Ultimately, while “Bust Op” may raise a few eyebrows with its provocative bravado, it also raises broader questions about the relationship between public art and the city of New Haven. The lack of formally outlined legislation for introducing, maintaining, and regulating public artwork is a massive gap in the system. Without this framework, artists are put into nebulous situations that cast doubt on the legality of their actions, as with Saunders and his “Bust Op.” City officials, too, are left uncertain about their right to enforce their authority, which results in scenarios like Pinto acquiescing to Saunders’ schedule.
While Saunders was successful in his negotiation for “Bust Op,” the same cannot be said for all of his public art projects. Ideat Village reached its conclusion in 2012 after Saunders was arrested on the charge of inciting a riot. On June 30, the New Haven police arrived at the festival and requested a permit from Saunders. City Hall had approved the event, but Saunders was unable to present the physical document, which was in the possession of his co-founder Shea, not on site. Saunders then ascended the stage: “We’ll wait for Nancy, the music is going to continue, and the police are going to have to be patient and enjoy the punk rock music with everybody else,” he recounted. “If the police officers have a problem with that, they are going to have to arrest a lot of people.” Officer Betsy Segui instead repeated that the festival was to be shut down as Saunders began to walk away. “If you walk away, I’ll arrest you,” Saunders remembered her saying. Still, he continued to turn, and the next thing he knew he was on the ground.
The arrest was not unfounded, as Saunders directly ignored a warning that Segui had issued. However, it was an unexpected escalation of events that seems especially brash considering the more peaceful alternative: waiting for Shea to arrive from another part of the festival with the permit. “After the end of Ideat Village, when cops crashed the event and arrested me, I decided to eschew the public process altogether and work in ‘private spaces’ or [do] ‘things’ in public that don’t require a permit, that ride the edge,” Saunders stated.
Ideat Village operated under clear administrative guidelines of public space and was officially approved by City Hall, but it ended with a dramatic and controversial arrest. Ironically, “Bust Op” ran smoothly in comparison, despite lacking any official approval. The first time we met Saunders, he described his work as navigating within a “crack in the system.” At our raised eyebrows, he laughed: “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission in this town.”