Complaints about a painting of a pig with a police cap forced the artwork from an outdoor display — but not before sparking a public debate about where art belongs.
Local artist Gordon Skinner painted the police-pig picture as part of a collage called “Cops.” He added some cut-up Marilyn Manson images and a recovered cassette music tape, attached it to a milk crate.
It was one of four milk-crate pieces Skinner created as an “Urban Totem Series” for a commission for Artspace’s month-long City Wide Open Studios (CWOS) extravaganza, which opened last weekend. Artspace hung Skinner’s pieces on a wall behind a fence on the Hudson Street side of the city-owned Goffe Street Armory, the site of this coming weekend’s CWOS mass exhibit.
Last Thursday Artspace heard from the city’s parks and rec director, Rebecca Bombero. Bombero said the city had received complaints from a cop and from a correctional officer at the Whalley jail, which is on the same block as the Armory. She suggested that Artspace move Skinner’s “Cops.”
“People walking by wouldn’t know what it was. They knew it was a city building,” Bombero told the Independent. “I suggesting repositioning it. I didn’t specify where. I believe in expression. I just believe context is important.”
Artspace at first considered moving the installation to the front of the Armory, along with signs and other artwork associated with CWOS. That would actually put it in fuller public view, but within a context that clarified it was part of an art exhibition.
Skinner didn’t like that idea. He felt it would compromise the message. So he and and CWOS Curator Sarah Fritchey decided instead to leave the other three milk-crate pieces in place and move “Cops” to a wall inside Artspace’s Orange Street gallery. And to organize a public forum about the issues raised by the incident. The forum is scheduled to run from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 20, inside the gallery at 50 Orange St.
Curator Fritchey said the incident presents “an opportunity to involve the city” in a broader discussion about where art should be shown, and how the public sees it. She invited everyone interested — including the people who originally complained about Skinner’s “Cops” — to the Thursday afternoon discussion.
In an interview at the gallery Monday, Skinner didn’t seem upset about the incident. He said he created the piece to provoke not controversy, but discussion. He succeeded.
“I was like, ‘OK. Wow. They noticed. Artists can go through a whole career without being noticed.”
Skinner, who’s 39, said the past two years’ worth of highly publicized police killings of unarmed black civilians by police officers inspired the piece. He said he also developed a view of police as “arrogant” watching them as he grew up in the Woodin Street area of Hamden and hanging out in New Haven.
Since the Black Panthers popularized the police-pig image in the 1960s, it has provoked strong emotions that persist to this day. Many cops say the epithet demonizes and dehumanizes them and lumps all officers, good and bad, together.
Good cops should “have nothing to worry about,” Skinner said. “I’m talking about the ones who abuse their authority.”
“I didn’t do this to be provocative. It’s my job as an artist to document the times we are in. For me not to say anything, I feel, would be a bigger disgrace,” he continued. “The icon is bigger than me. I’m speaking for the people who died.”
An Old Meme
Police spokesman Officer David Hartman said cops “are not allowed” to participate in debates like this one.
“It’s frustrating,” he said. “We are not allowed to bring up that dialogue. People can call us whatever they want. When one cop does something bad, every cop is bad. If a cop ever generalized that way” about a person or a group, “they’d be fired.”
New Haven police union President Craig Miller noted that the association of “pig” with “police” dates back to the naming of a police force headquarters in 1811, and that people have been using the term in the United Stastes as an epithet for cops since the street protests of the 1960s.
Miller said he “brushes it off” when people — including relatives — make “pig” cracks.
“I get it from family members. They give me a hot cup of tea in a pig cup. I just laugh it off,” he said.
“You’re calling someone a name. What can you say? You don’t even know what kind of person I am. You’re judging me. You’re calling somebody a ‘pig.’ Then when you need them” during a crime, you’re happy to see them, he said.
While he doesn’t think it’s “fair to call anybody a name,” Miller said pig-naming doesn’t personally hurt him: “You’ve got to have a thick skin to have this job.”
In commissioning Skinner’s series, Artspace asked the artist to incorporate the image of milk crates as basketball hoops. Skinner grew up playing hoops with friends, often improvising with milk crates when no formal hoop was available.
The pieces in the series incorporate other childhood memories as well. As a kid, he noted, “you improvise and make a game out of everything.” Adults follow the same pattern, he observed, “when you don’t have materials, and you improvise.” So he used found materials in these pieces.
Skinner started his artistic career at 30 years old after an inspiring encounter with Andy Warhol’s work during a visit to New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The first gallery to display his work was City Lights in Bridgeport; the curator there, Suzanne Kachmar, became a mentor.
He developed his craft, created a website, and started displaying his work elsewhere in the area. (“I use the canvas to explore the social, racial and gender driven aspects of our subconscious, and to push these competing impulses toward synthesis,” he writes.) His current paying job is managing a group home; he also works daily in a studio at Erector Square, where he plans to open a new business, a seven-day-a-week breakfast-lunch spot at Building 4. He plans a soft opening on Oct. 29th and 30th. He plans to feature special evening events there where patrons sip wine, eat, and do paintings that they then bring home with them.
He’s calling it Gordon Skinner’s Art Cafe. The betting money is that there’ll be plenty to talk about there.