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For Artist Knowledge Bennett, “Orange Is The New Black”

Images: Joseph Gross Gallery

Knowledge Bennett calls on history as muse and teacher. He uses the past – its images, its art historical context – to decipher and decode the now. His is pop art that detonates with actual meaning, filling in the intentional hollowness of Warhol’s pedigree with questioning, with the upending of the cultural narrative. The work – utilizing motifs plucked from mass culture, pattern and repetition and a certain mechanical feel of reproduction – may come in familiar robes, but it wants for more than fame-soaked superficiality and celebrity-gazing. It wants for what pop culture precisely aims to distract from – what’s actually been going on.

For Orange Is the New Black, his first solo exhibition in New York, the Los Angeles-based artist has created a series of large scale, hand-pulled silkscreen and acrylic paintings on canvas that stake claim in the critique of the U.S. government’s historically unjust treatment of the black American community. Images of Eldridge Cleaver, Richard Nixon, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and J Edgar Hoover are juxtaposed with newspaper clippings – The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, Abner Louima – creating a chronological patchwork of systemic oppression and corruption. With the repetition of Time Magazine’s cover blaring that “Reagan Knew Everything” next to a picture of (the real) Freeway Rick Ross, Bennett draws a short line between the architects and fall-guys of the crack epidemic. And not to be overlooked, is that these images are all stretched across “prison jumpsuit orange” colored canvases. Though presented as literal background, Bennett brings the criminalization of the Black community to the foreground.

Indeed, Orange is the New Black are portraits of America.

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Mass Appeal: How and why does history factor into your practice?

Knowledge Bennett: If I’m not mistaken it was Malcolm X who quoted Elijah Muhammad as saying “Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research. And when you see that you’ve got problems, all you have to do is examine the historic method used all over the world by others who have problems similar to yours. And once you see how they got theirs straight, then you know how you can get yours straight”.

There’s also an old saying that goes: “There’s nothing new under the sun”. With this in mind, when looking to identify a pattern, which is what my latest body of work Orange Is The New Black sets out to do, I need only to refer back to earlier periods to validate my claims.

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Can you talk about the significance of the show’s title – an appropriation in and of itself – and your thoughts on this country’s historical obsession with perpetuating the mythology of black criminalization through and in media?

The title of my new show Orange Is The New Black is indeed an appropriation of the title of a popular television series. I find appropriation, at times, works best when seeking to draw a particular audience in. It gives them something familiar to begin with, then we move forward from this point. As a contemporary Pop Artist, most of what I do begins with the familiar. It’s something I’ve picked up from growing up in Hip Hop. Rap Artist would often times quote other famous lyrics or lines by other rappers to start off or set the tone. Once this has been done and you’ve established some common ground between yourself and the listener, well, in my case the onlooker, you go ahead and do your thing. All things in life are intertwined to one degree or another. No man is an island. Therefore, why attempt to re-invent the wheel? I’d rather just add another spoke to it.

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As far as the mythology of black criminalization through and in media, this is a simple case of character assassination by way of propaganda. This ongoing character assassination is extremely vital when shaping popular opinion of a person or group of people, which inevitably makes way for the “justifiable mistreatment” of another person or group of people. If it can be established or at least agreed upon that “Blacks” are prone to violence, criminal behavior, or anything of the sort, harsher treatment, at the hands of the police, judicial system, etc. can seem quite reasonable to the bystander. It’s similar to how before “America” can go in and steal another country’s resources solely for the purpose of satisfying their own greed and inherent need to control another countries way of living, they must first convince the world that these people or country is of the upmost evil, corrupt and dangerous. And if left alone, they’re coming to kill all of us when least expected. This is the narrative given to the American people for so long when dealing with the Blackman.

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Orange is the New Black opens tonight at Joseph Gross Gallery (548 W. 28th Street, NYC) and runs through December 3, 2016.

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