Was to have run through May 2, 2020
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 minimalism, and manipulated famous paintings and iconic images to convey various atrocities and outrages perpetrated against African Americans. The results are stunning, large-scale silkscreened photo-murals and paintings that 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, co-existed with a golden age of American late modernism.
For example, Warhol’s “Chairman Mao” series (1972-73) is commandeered to superimpose 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 U.S. 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.
More to the point, the centerpiece of the survey, “Orange is the New Black” (2020), involves six large-scale works, each of which depicts imprisonments, arrests, surveillance and presidential misconduct 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 contribution to correcting a ragged historical record.