By DAVID DUPONT
BG Independent News
Ben Schonberger’s art installation, “Beautiful Pig,” at River House Arts in Toledo couldn’t come at a more fraught moment coming as it does in a time when our reactions are color coded. The heart-felt cry of Black Lives Matter giving rise to the reaction of Blue Lives Matter.
Schonberger collaborated with retired Detroit detective Marty Gaynor to create a portrait of the cop and his community and the relationship between the cop and the artist.
“I think it’s an incredibly fragile moment,” Schonberger said. “I don’t think it’s ever been more relevant.”
He sees the exhibit as an opening to an “alternate” conversation about policing and community, one “that doesn’t begin with a charged reaction.”
In every incident, “everybody has an alternative story,” he said.
This isn’t work, he said, that someone will see in the gallery and buy to hang in their home. “The best part about this work isn’t the art, it’s to be able to have an alternative conversation about people and process. If you can have a conversation about humans and feeling, identity, empathy, survival and history, if you can understand someone’s brain for a minute, that’s when contemporary art is so powerful.”
Fittingly this is the first collaboration between the gallery’s owner Paula Baldoni and the nascent group Contemporary Art Toledo. Brain Carpenter, the founder, said the group is interested in exactly these kind of shows that are more about generating debate than displaying objects.
The River House walls are lined with the pictures of suspects, and cryptic symbols, documentation of Gaynor’s 31 years on the streets of Detroit.
They touch as well as his identity as a Jewish man, a rarity in law enforcement. They touch on the ethnic divide of urban policing – most of the suspects are African-American.
The material at first seems unmediated, but looking closely, Schonberger’s shaping hand is evident. He didn’t just take the material and slap it up on the walls. He took it, asked questions, revisited the scenes.
The bare walls of the gallery in the historic Secor building add an additional layer of authenticity. City life goes on outside the ceiling to floor windows; the neon Star of David inside the gallery is visible to those passing by.
Schonberger had the idea for the project when he moved to Detroit in 2011. Initially it would be a series of works, each portraying a man through the lens of his profession.
Problem was he knew no one in the city. A neighbor suggested he contact his father’s friend Marty Gaynor, a retired police officer. “Tell him you’re Jewish and he’ll talk to you,” he was advised.
Schonberger’s father is Jewish.
That approach worked. Gaynor let him into his life. He opened up all the boxes that contained the documentation of his career.
Throughout his career, Gaynor had taken photographs on the job, and Schonberger, who is trained as a photographer, was fascinated by the way the detective used photography. “There was something new and different.”
Gaynor trusted Schonberger with the archive.
The project became about more than just documenting his career. It was about “what happens when a Jewish cop and a queer artist get together,” Schonberger said.
So Schonberger, then 22, asked Gaynor to write about the photographs, what he remembered about the circumstances in which it was taken.
They photographed a series with Gaynor reenacting an arrest with Schonberger as the suspect.
Included in the collection is a newspaper clipping with headline “It’s Not Clark Park, It’s Crack Park.” In the background, the viewer can see two police officers, one of them Gaynor, making an arrest. Also, included are shots of a pants-less Gaynor showing where a dog bit him.
There’s a contemporary photo of the Ambassador Bridge to go with a disciplinary note written up against Gaynor. The incident involved a drunk threatening to leap off the bridge, and Gaynor telling him to “go jump in a lake.”
Their talks were wide-ranging about policing, Judaism, Detroit.
Gaynor and Schonberger worked together from 2011-2013, and then the artist spent a year assembling the project. The book “Beautiful Pig” received international recognition and entered the collections of major museums. Only seven copies remain for sale, and they will be available at the gallery.
Parts were included in other exhibits, but the River House show is the first time it’s being shown in its entirety.
The focal point of “Beautiful Pig” is Schonberger’s formal portrait of Gaynor, taken in the synagogue where he had his bar mitzvah, a shawl draped over his police uniform. Schonberger had the rabbi put the shawl on to add a touch of ritual authenticity.
Above and to the right is a neon Star of David, created by Schonberger. Not far away is the photograph that gave the exhibit its name. It shows Gaynor when he was 22 and still in training, in comic police garb – evoking the Village People’s idea of a cop – and wearing a t-shirt with a cartoon pig and the word “Beautiful” under it.
Next to this is a photograph of Schonberger, the same age, in a similar pose and garb. Like the exhibit, it’s both a tribute and a prompt for further discussion.
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An opening reception for “Beautiful Pig” will be held Friday, Aug. 12, from 8 to 10 p.m. at the gallery at 425 Jefferson, Toledo. The reception immediately follows the artist’s 7 p.m. talk in the GlasSalon of the Toledo Museum of Art’s Glass Pavilion. The show runs through Sept. 8. Gallery hours are by appointment by calling 419-441-4025. Online: firstname.lastname@example.org.