Knowledge Bennett: Road to Damascus
Western Gallery & Sculpture Collection, WWU, Bellingham, WA
WESTERN GALLERY, Western Washington University, Bellingham WA - To May 2
By Matthew Kangas
Art about art is not a new postmodern strategy, but Los Angeles artist Knowledge Bennett has taken on all postwar American art, from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art, and manipulated famous paintings and iconic images to convey various atrocities and outrages perpetrated against African Americans. His stunning, large-scale silkscreened photo murals and paintings bring us up short to recognize figures from our own times in positions of acute urgency, alarm and political humor all at once.
Western Gallery curator Hafthor Yngvason has contextualized Bennett’s magpie approach to art history by setting the original artists’ works copied or satirized beside Bennett’s grim parodies. Drawn from the permanent collection, works by New Yorkers Barnett Newman, Richard Serra and Andy Warhol complement the self-taught artist’s ruminations on how historical events of the period involving violations of civil rights, among other things, coexisted with a golden age of American modernism.
For example, Warhol’s Chairman Mao series (1972-73) is commandeered to “perform” a grotesque insertion of Donald J. Trump’s face over Mao’s. Another Warhol, Elvis (1963), becomes Obama Cowboy (2019), a comment on the courage and beloved status of the former US president. Black Paintings (2020) echo works by proto-minimalist Newman, with two of his works on paper adjacent to Bennett’s large monochromes – loaded with glitter. In the centerpiece of the survey, Orange Is the New Black (2020), six large-scale works depict imprisonments, arrests, surveillance and presidential crimes to make a point about executive crimes (Nixon, Reagan, Clinton) occurring simultaneously with law enforcement efforts to detain and incarcerate young Black men. Such juxtapositions are Bennett’s brilliant contribution to a ragged historical record.