TOLEDO, OH — It’s impossible to consider the content of Beautiful Pig, a collection of works by artist Ben Schonberger, as wholly separate from the scourge of police and state-sanctioned violence against people of color. Schonberger spent two-plus years collaborating with Marty Gaynor, a retired Detroit police officer who obsessively documented his work and subsequently retained thousands of images taken in the course of policing during the 1970s and ’80s; in the process, the artist created a body of work that blends archiving with revisionism and role-play. The source material and the new creations are presented mostly in photographic form, both in the exhibition, which opened at River House Arts earlier this month, and in a book that also bears the show’s name.
When I sat down to discuss the project with Schonberger, he began by mentioning a previous one, wherein he worked closely with a taxidermist. “His shop was in his home, so you had the work space and the living space, and he kind of gave me access to both spaces,” said Schonberger. “So I started photographing his taxidermy specimens in both locations. I learned early on, after working with this guy and him sort of letting me into his workspace, I was not that interested in the taxidermy. I was more interested in him, this archetype of masculinity he reflects. He was very macho, he worked with tools, he was working with animals, and he wore camo.”
Moving to Michigan to pursue his MFA in photography at Cranbrook Academy of Art, Schonberger thought to continue his examination of masculine identity in an anthology format. “I thought it was going to be a big book of stories,” he said. “I wanted to meet these guys that reflected masculine characteristics and masculine jobs, and I would learn something about them through their profession, and I would piece together my own collection of skills, but also friendships and images and experiences — it was kind of like piecing together an education through Detroit.” Chance acquaintance brought him to Gaynor. Schonberger was advised to play up the Jewish aspect of his mixed-religion and largely secular upbringing in the meeting.
But during that first encounter, his attention was diverted by a photograph displayed on the refrigerator. “So he told me this story,” said Schonberger, “how he brought this guy downtown for auto theft, and he knew he was going to get physical, and he [the thief] tried to punch Marty. Marty punched him first, took out his Polaroid camera and made a photograph, and it hung in his office for 31 years. I said, ‘This is fabulous — do you have any more photographs like this?’ And he takes me to his basement and starts pulling out boxes and boxes and boxes of photographs.” Schonberger was able to convince Gaynor to loan him the archive, which was shot and compiled over decades of police work (in an era before digital photography or databases) but retained by the cop following retirement for reasons that are more ambiguous. In attempting to make sense of and digitize the archive, Schonberger entered into a deeper level of exchange with his subject.
This exhaustive exploration of Gaynor’s identity — and the places where it overlapped with or informed Schonberger’s own — included the formalizing of his photo archive into grids, upon which the ex-cop would write reflections or memories. Sometimes these are funny, as with an incident report wherein Gaynor received a “slap on the wrist” for telling a drunk to “jump in the lake” — “I got the idea from watching too many Dirty Harry movies,” Gaynor says on an accompanying Post-it note. But overwhelmingly, the contents of the archive form a disturbing tapestry. Schonberger devoted years of work to creating an expansive understand of his subject’s identity, yet that work is built on page after page of mostly people of color reduced to brief, stigmatizing labels: “Drugs,” “Stolen car,” “Crackhead,” “Pick-pocket.” Sometimes people’s names are included, written in the margins of the Polaroids. In one image, which is offered entirely without context, a woman in a jail cell is captured with her face turned down and her breast exposed, in the process of either opening or closing her jacket.
“I first aestheticized the photographs, just for that quality — they were very much of the 1970s and 1980s. They had a rawness,” said Schonberger. “They looked like amateur street photography, and it was very of a time and place — the whole thing felt like a movie. But then I thought, this guy has this really fascinating relationship to photography. He’s kind of a photographer, but he’s not identifying as a photographer, but he’s got this collection.” The nature of that collection has deeply questionable dimensions, particularly when viewed in tandem with Schonberger’s previous project involving the taxidermist. Whether or not Gaynor’s documentation process was justified in relationship to his work as a cop, that work was based on interactions with other people; because of the racial divide, which informs the power imbalance between alleged criminals and the police, the act of subsequently keeping these images suggests a kind of trophy-taking. Much like taxidermy, there is a sense of dominating living creatures and then putting them on display — a practice that’s unconscionable within the context of policing, but also exploitative within the context of art-making.
Schonberger fell in deep with his subject, however, and this seems to have formed a kind of blind spot, as intense identity bleed-through began to take place between artist and ex-cop. One senses, in talking to Schonberger, that he experienced the revelation of determining Gaynor to be an outsider artist of sorts, as well as a role model of certain types of masculine behavior and an oddly macho outlier from the traditional archetype of Jewish male identity. Certainly, there is a bewildering scope of identity issues within the original archive, as well as how Schonberger expanded upon it by inserting himself as a proxy for his subject, divorcing the materials from their original context, and rearranging them according to his own sense of internal order. Marty Gaynor seems to be an extraordinarily complex person, and one who coincidentally triggered a deep response within Schonberger, touching on so many of the artist’s own issues as to make the conflation of their identities understandable, though not less disturbing. Among Schonberger’s contributions to the project, besides archiving, are attempts to recreate images of Gaynor as a young man, documentation of an episode wherein he requested that Gaynor come to his house in uniform and arrest him, and an image of his own wisdom teeth, which were removed while he was working with Gaynor. That Schonberger felt some kind of instinctive resonance between his own teeth and Gaynor’s archive underscores the intensity of their connection, but in the book, showing a set of teeth in a bag without any other information verges on serial killer territory.
Much has been said, by Ta-Nehisi Coates and many others, about the fundamental problems with policing as an institution. I find myself sympathetic to Schonberger’s position, because in merely attempting examine the themes of Beautiful Pig, I suspect I could write another 10,000 words and still fail to arrive at a comfortable conclusion. A number of aspects of the project give me pause, but it’s worth noting that the creation of a personal archive of work-related materials is not uncommon among policemen — and, more importantly, that there’s something inherently challenging about people who professionally engage with life-or-death circumstances. As with veterans, I imagine it’s extremely challenging to transition back into a layer of society where the strategies for dealing with conflict are very different, and it represents an openness on the part of Gaynor to allow a virtual stranger to enter his world so deeply. Schonberger’s unflinching commitment to following his subject into perilous psychological territory is admirable in its way, too, but one gets the sense in looking at the work that no one — artist, subject, or viewer — has the luxury of remaining unaffected by it.
Beautiful Pig continues at River House Arts (425 Jefferson Avenue, Toledo, Ohio) through September 8.