At first glance, it's easy to see Andy Warhol's impact on the work of artist Knowledge Bennett, who has made cultural iconography his subject matter and silkscreen his process. However, Bennett's most recent series, Orange Is the New Black, confronts race issues in ways that aren't likely to be mistaken for the work of the pop art icon. Bennett's upcoming series will mark an even greater departure; a move into abstraction, using oil paint in a substantial way for the first time. It happens to coincide with the self-taught artist's expansion into the Arts District with KNOW Contemporary, a new 4,500-square-foot space that mixes his work with that of other like-minded artists.
“Exhibitions will range from political to the spiritual, works that have a lot to say, to works that allow you to hear your own thoughts. The best advice and guidance comes from within. The politics of the KNOW will represent more of a do-for-self philosophy and less of a forced-inclusion methodology,” Bennett says on a recent sweltering afternoon, laying out his philosophical plan for the space based on his past experiences in the art world. “Rather than spending my time and energy demanding equality in the industry, I thought it best to build my own situation and offer an opportunity to those often left out of the equation. Hopefully, other artists and creatives are inspired to do the same.”
The new split-level space just closed its inaugural show, Knowledge Bennett: In Retrospect, and will remain dark until September, when it opens an exhibit featuring new works by Bennett in the downstairs gallery and a group show upstairs. He hasn't yet decided whether to display his new abstract paintings or new silkscreens.
Already slated for the upstairs gallery are Ronald Jackson, Ronnie Rob, Miles Regis, Steven Cogle and painter-sculptor LeRone Wilson, artists whose works range from realistic portraiture to abstract figurative compositions, occupying a genre that has become the center of Bennett's attention.
Hailing from Asbury Park, New Jersey, and Harlem, the artist studied pre-law at the College of New Jersey and lists nightclubs, trucking and demolition companies as past interests, as well as time spent dabbling in film, music and fashion. He's been image-making since 2010, and settled on silkscreening as a process and Warhol as a primary inspiration in 2012, two years before he moved to L.A.
His latest series, Orange Is the New Black, includes silkscreens in the two eponymous colors covering six canvases representing six decades of institutional racism. Beginning in 1932, with the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, in which the government administered the disease to unwitting African-American men for over 40 years, the series jumps to the 1960s and likenesses of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Huey Newton juxtaposed with FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover brandishing a tommy gun.
Nixon and adviser John Ehrlichman are featured on another canvas with the latter's now infamous quote reading: “We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, then we could disrupt those communities. … Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
“To me the key words in all of this are 'disrupt those communities,'?” Bennett says. “That's what this is all about, the continued disruption of the black community by way of political corruption and institutional racism that led to the marginalization and disenfranchisement of a certain segment of society.”
Symbolizing the 1980s are Ronald Reagan and Oliver North, faces of the CIA-backed cocaine trade that funded Nicaraguan death squads. Bennett intersperses them among the faces of the crack kings they spawned: Freeway Rick Ross, as well as New York City dealers Alpo Martinez, Azie Faison and Rich Porter.
The 1990s composition features Bill Clinton playing his saxophone with Arsenio Hall looking on. They are bordered, top and bottom, by a formidable prison wall, commenting on Clinton's 1994 crime bill including draconian measures such as the “3 Strikes You're Out” rule, which critics say decimated communities of color.
“Taking everybody and throwing them in jail is not the answer. What about taking the same money for housing people in prison and dumping that into the educational system, or dump that into job creation so you have alternatives, you have something else to do with your time besides getting in trouble?” Bennett asks. “This is what arrested development is all about. The incarceration of the physical body is one thing, but the arrested development of a community as a whole is something else.”
On another canvas, tabloid headlines decry death and brutality suffered by Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell and Eric Garner at the hands of police. “You could do a whole show on this subject. I would need a whole museum for that show. Everything that's going on in this room, it's not something that started and stopped in this decade,” Bennett says, taking in the series. “It doesn't go away 'cause the evil doesn't go away. It's an ignorance that's inherited. It's passed down.
“I created this work for young people to understand there was a war waged on your parents, your grandparents, and there's a reason for the haves and the have-nots,” Bennett explains about the series, which will debut at Western Washington University in the coming months. “I hope this exhibit can provide context and re-instill a sense of self-value and self-worth. 'My family may not have this, here are the reason why. Now that I'm aware of it, these are the things I'm going to do to counter all the bullshit coming toward me.'?”
Stepping upstairs to a gallery of his earlier works, the mood lightens. One wall is covered with examples from his 2014 series Cojones, featuring a 1989 Janette Beckman photo of rapper Slick Rick holding his crotch in one hand and a bottle of champagne in the other. In each frame, Rick's head is replaced with one of Bennett's idols who disrupted in a positive way: Salvador Dalí, Madonna, Joseph Beuys, Hillary Clinton, Frida Kahlo, John Lennon, Prince, and the list goes on.
Facing them from across the gallery is Obama Cowboy, Six-Shooter, painted in 2012, featuring Obama's head on the body of Elvis Presley playing a cowboy in the 1960 movie Flaming Star. It's the same image Warhol used for his 1962 silkscreen Double Elvis, but Bennett's piece suggests a conversation that bears little relation to the original.
“When I went back and studied the film, Elvis is half Native American. President Obama was running for re-election, and looking at this character torn between two worlds, now he has the gun in his hand, he has the power. Some people can't stomach seeing President Obama with a gun in his hand,” Bennett notes. “Everything about this painting becomes a portrait of America for me. You can have a conversation about the cowboy, white cowboys versus black cowboys. Or what's the difference between a white man with a gun in his hand and a black man with a gun in his hand? When is gun control truly necessary?”
Another idol, Colin Kaepernick, will be the subject of his next piece as part of Men of Change, a group show celebrating black male icons, which will launch a three-year tour next year through the Smithsonian Institution. In the meantime, the focus is on his September show at the KNOW Contemporary, something less political, though he's not making any promises.
“It's the way I'm wired. It's based on the upbringing and having experiences and having empathy for others, and seeing what they're going through,” he explains, searching for words. “Restoring a sense of dignity and humanity and compassion, these are the things.”