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You could call Los Angeles-based artist Knowledge Bennett an heir to the Warholian aesthetic, but know this – Bennett effectively moves past the glossy surface and firmly tackles socially imperative issues that have plagued American history.
In his first New York solo exhibit, Orange is the New Black, currently on view at the Joseph Gross Gallery in New York, Bennett lays bare America's ugly truths towards men of color on multiple silkscreened, acrylic-based canvases.
Orange is the New Black guides us through factual wrongdoings against the Black community from the 1930s to the 2010s. In the style of Warhol, repetitive images command Bennett's canvases, which also mirrors the repetitive injustices continuously faced by people of color in America.
Your series Orange is the New Black clearly represent the facts related to the mass criminalization of men of color and how we got there. Can you expand?
Knowledge Bennett: I felt the need to present a body of work which chronicles the age-old phenomena of systemic disenfranchisement. Only through honesty and awareness can we begin to right the many wrongs inflicted upon our community.
"I feel it is important to use my platform as an artist, to do more than simply paint pretty pictures that will at most become someone’s fancy wall rug."
Artists can do much more and should, especially during times like today. We have a responsibility to help heal some of the wounds caused by ignorance, hatred, and even indifference. But this takes courage, and not many are willing to risk what’s at stake for standing strong in their convictions.
Many of us will assume your series Orange is the New Black got its name from the popular Netflix show – what was the true inspiration behind your choice?
As I was working on this body of work, minus the orange element, I noticed an artist friend of mine, Tawny Chapman, whom I follow on Instagram, incorporate the color into a creative challenge of hers.
Between that and another amazing artist friend of mine, Karon Davis, who wore a breathtaking orange dress at her "Pain Management" exhibition in DTLA, I was inspired to work with this color which I hadn’t used prior in such a capacity.
I often find inspiration for new bodies of work from women. They’re captivating beings that are often the muses for my creative process.
Looking at your Marilyn Monroe artworks, Andy Warhol pops up as the obvious reference – what is your intent with Marilyn’s remixed representation?
Quite often I seek to alter popular images in a very minimal way to tell a very different story. With my Marilyn Monroe series Good Girl Gone Bad, I simply added a tied bandana scarf around her head to make a statement of defiance and courage.
While researching the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s, I was shocked to learn of Marilyn Monroe’s involvement and influence in helping to break the color barrier (in the entertainment industry) which existed during these times.
"In today’s era, many celebrities are so fixated with their brands that they won’t even speak up against injustices that still affect a lot of people..."
I developed a newfound respect for her and her contributions to society at large. To learn that this woman, who was mostly known only as a major film star and sex symbol, had the balls and compassion for others to go out on a limb and make this happen is something worth acknowledging.
In your series Cojones (Spanish for testicles), each subject had the "balls" to pioneer change in various areas of society. What inspired this series?
I’m an entrepreneur at heart and have always been moved by those who’ve shown courage in taking matters into their own hands. A lot of this series has to do with that, while the other part addresses wishful thinking.
Each of the characters either was or still is a highly influential individual with platforms to help usher change in a major way. Not all have done so in ways that some of us wish, but then again – in many of the cases, the books haven’t been completely written.
For this reason, I try to remain optimistic. We all arrive at our greater good and self at different points in our lives.
What’s next for you in December and in early 2017?
Closing out 2016, I’ll be back in Miami during Art Basel with a solo exhibition at Macaya Gallery, as well as participating in Scope Miami Art Fair. Three of my international art dealers/galleries (Joseph Gross Gallery of NYC, Galerie Virginie Barrou Planquart of Paris, and Struck Contemporary of Toronto) will all represent different series of mine during the fair.
As far as 2017, my short-term goals are to continue developing relationship with galleries abroad to expand my reach in this industry. I’ll be working on new bodies of work as well as releasing limited edition prints of existing works to offer more affordable options for acquiring my art.
There’s also a few speaking engagements which might arise in the coming year as well as some philanthropic work for community outreach and development.
Knowledge Bennett's exhibition Orange is the New Black will be on display through December 3, 2016, at the Joseph Gross Gallery in New York.