Santa Monica hit factory Windmark Recording Studio went balls to the wall over the weekend, kicking off a series of art exhibitions in the space with “Cojones,” a provocative silk-screen work by NYC-based artist Knowledge Bennett.
Hung throughout the two-story megastudio were life-size renderings of legendary rapper Slick Rick’s iconic crotch-grabbing pose. The rub: each canvas featured a different celebrity head in place of Rick’s.
The pieces poke and prod at the public’s idea of masculinity. Well-known tough guys Biggie and Pac are featured in the series, but so are trailblazing women like Beyonce, Grace Jones and Madonna.
Guests sipped on ONEHOPE Wine and specialty Svedka cocktails while taking in Bennett’s bold pieces. Violinist James Thompson played along with Top 40 hits booming from the PA. The crowd was diverse and engaged, eagerly chatting about which version was their favorite.
The self-taught Bennett says the work is meant to honor public figures—mostly musicians—who are defiant, courageous and independent. Kendrick Lamar, an artist who has those qualities in spades, gave a vigorous co-sign the day before the exhibition, posing in front of the Grace Jones canvas.
Bennett was gracious enough to sit down and chat with us at the event despite being absolutely mobbed by admirers and various media types. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How’d you come up with the concept?
I was sitting in my studio about two years ago, and the image of Slick Rick popped in my head. It was my favorite photograph as a child. I remember very vividly the first time I ever saw it.
During that time I modeled myself a lot after Slick Rick. I remember getting in a lot of trouble not taking my bally shoes off because I didn’t want to do gym. Wouldn’t wear sneakers to school.
That image popped in my head and I was like “this image is so iconic, but at the same time I felt as though it was kind of laying a little dormant. I wanted to bring it up to speed on a more contemporary level, and intertwine it with some characters old and new. I knew for a fact that the new ones would catch people’s attention.
The very first character that I started off with was President Obama, again, because around that time he was really the it guy. He was very, very hot. This being popular culture, you play on what’s going on right now. Or you take something from the old and bring it up to now.
I’m sitting in my studio one day and one of my collectors came by and I just had it hanging on the wall. It wasn’t structured, it wasn’t finished yet, and he looked at it and he was like “this is nuts.” And this was like a 60-something year old guy. He got it immediately.
The Cojones series had to be bigger than Obama, had to kind of tie it all in. So I started to think along the lines of two of the most influential things in my life as a child growing up were hip-hop, but also politics, because these are two things that I couldn’t escape. And then I started to look at that relationship between hip-hop and politics.
Did you handpick this space?
No actually I was contacted by the PR company that runs this space. I just got a random email one day, and it was like “hey we’ve seen your work, we love your work, we’d like to do something with you in a different type of setting.
And I’m always for alternative space galleries. I think it allows for a different type of experience. It’s not the traditional white wall, vanilla box gallery experience. It’s something that has a little more life to it.
The fact that the works are allowed to be exhibited here and share the same space and the same energy and the same vibe as all these different creative artists, musical artists coming in here creating their masterpieces, for me that’s just dope. That adds to the provenance of everything.
Whose music are you listening to right now?
I’m definitely listening to Kendrick. I think what Kendrick brought to the game is dope. I’m definitely a fan of Drake’s music. I mean it’s very, very easy to listen to.
But for the most part, I’m really borderline obsessed with Esperanza Spaulding. Her music is just so dope, it’s so refreshing.
I like a lot of music; a lot of Frank Sinatra, a lot of Dean Martin and cats like that. Frank is also a part of the series. He’s always just been a favorite of mine.
Did you ever worry about the response you’d get adding women to the series with a title like “Cojones”?
I was really excited to add the women to it. Women have always exhibited just as much if not more courage than a lot of men. From the way I came up and seeing different women have different struggles and have to be left with a lot of things to handle on their own, that requires a lot of courage. To not just go in a corner and ball up and cry, that’s major. So I had to bring the women in.
PHOTO CREDIT: Jon Hechtkopf