Knowledge Bennett is a self-taught artist transforming pop art iconography. He comprised a collection of his large painted and silkscreened works for an exhibit lasting January through May at Western Washington University.
Born in New Jersey, Bennett grew up in the 1980s and ’90s Northeast, when postmodern art was becoming less revolutionary and more recognizable.
From 1960s New York City came a central pop art movement led by Andy Warhol producing definitive images of the day’s icons: an alluring Marilyn Monroe gaze, an Elvis Presley wide-legged stance, a simple Campbell’s soup can.
While most of us recognize Warhol’s extensive and commercial works, Bennett takes the recognition further to inspire a following of his own.
Since 2012, Bennett has commanded solo exhibitions, and his “Cojones- Warhol” is selling for a noteworthy $35,000. The work started with a 1989 photo from Janette Beckman, a British photographer who focused on the groundswell of hip-hop in New York City in the ’80s. Bennett took her popular photo of Slick Rick grabbing his crotch and gripping a bottle and replaced the rapper with Warhol, then Beyoncé, The Notorious B.I.G., John Lennon and more in his series, “Cojones.” In Bennett’s completed works, each artist is depicted gripping and grabbing as well.
Another arresting Bennett series weaves President Donald Trump into a Warhol image of the communist leader Mao Zedong. Trump’s openly pursed, recognizable mouth jumps out of the other man’s familiar face, creating another painting of artistic and political significance.
“What struck me most about Andy’s work was the relatability of it,” Bennett said. “He touched on so many elements of pop culture and Americana as a whole. There was something there for just about everyone.
“At first glance I thought to myself, I could do that. Then I thought, I should do that, but in my own unique way. So, I did it.”
Bennett broadens the art’s social commentary to include our culture’s stark effects. In a 2016 interview with Artsy, Bennett said Warhol’s known motivation for painting his image of Elvis Presley wielding a gun — preceding Bennett’s version of then-President Barack Obama — was Warhol’s love affair with celebrity culture. Bennett continued, “To be frank, my painting has more to do with America as an egocentric multi-racial society whose love affair with guns has all but made the Natives disappear than it does celebrity culture. Now it goes without saying that Andy’s work has influenced mine, yet not in the way most people think.”
Like his artistic influences, Bennett draws from the culture that surrounds him.
“Life is my inspiration. It’s what inspires me most. The very act of waking up in the morning is all the inspiration I need.
“I also find myself inspired from time to time when I’m reminded that I’m a part of something much bigger than my own personal practice.”
Bennett has been deliberate all along. When asked for the story behind his name, “Knowledge,” he said: “My name (Knowledge Everlasting) stems from a set of principles known as the Supreme Mathematics. Supreme Mathematics are the foundational teachings of the 5 percent Nation, aka Allah’s 5 percent, aka the Nation of Gods and Earths.
“It’s a cultural group established in the 1960s by a man named ALLAH. He was a former member of the Nation of Islam, once belonging to Temple #7 under the guidance and leadership of Minister Malcolm X. Within Supreme Mathematics there are 10 fundamental principles. Such principles are used to govern one’s self, family and community. Knowledge is the very first principle, which means ‘the foundation.’ Man stands on what he knows and stands for what he loves.
“I was raised within this culture. It’s where my name comes from. Our names are what we call our ‘Attributes.’ They describe characteristics or qualities of an individual. This is an age-old cultural practice that was taken away from my people during a time of interruption known as slavery.”
Bennett currently resides in Los Angeles, where he lives and breathes his art.
“I’m surrounded by my own work. I’m my harshest critic, yet my biggest fan. I make what I want to see, so it’s what I’m most comfortable around.
“Each work of art becomes another member to my family. The work keeps me company and always offers an opportunity for contemplation for one subject or another.”
Works from “Cojones,” “Mao Trump” and five of Bennett’s other series are in his “Road to Damascus” exhibit at Western Washington University, open until May 2.
Happily, Bennett will be onsite in Bellingham the week of April 20, and the gallery will make arrangements for patrons to meet with him.
“The Pacific Northwest is a majestic place,” he said. “It’s a place where the landscape and natural elements seldom cease to amaze. Living in LA, it’s not often that I take advantage of what Mother Nature has to offer. I find myself inundated with city life and forget just how beautiful she can be.
“Up in the Pacific Northwest, there is no forgetting. You’re constantly reminded. I’ve never seen so much green — within the continental U.S. Towering trees that reach for sky as well as beautiful bodies of water.”
Bennett’s potentially favorite part of the process is when he gets to share his work. “Recently I heard a saying that ‘a painting is not complete until it’s shared.’ This resonated deeply with me. As long as I’m the only one who’s laid eyes on it, there’s always the potential for something to be added or taken away.
“But once it goes out into the world and becomes an official part of my catalogue, that’s it. It’s done and now has a life of its own.”
With regard to what came before and what will come after, Bennett is now sharing his perspective.
“Each generation of artists is a part of this continuum. We’re carrying on a legacy. A legacy of alchemist who turn water into wine (metaphorically speaking of course). A legacy that is meant to be shared with the next generation of creatives. It’s a relay race and a time shall come for each and every one of us to pass the baton.”
Read the full Jan. 29 - Feb. 4 issue.
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