On Thursday evening, the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College opened its newest exhibition, “Known & Understood: Selections from the Permanent Collection.” The first event of the spring semester, the exhibition opening was casual, allowing visitors to come and go as they pleased –– a format conscious of crowding as the museum remains wary of high COVID-19 numbers in the county.
Salim Moore, the Benton’s assistant curator of collections, curated “Known & Understood,” his first museum show. Curatorial interns Amanda Owens SC ’22 and Joseph Frankel PZ ’22 also helped with the show, and Moore made gracious mention to the whole Benton staff for the vital roles they played in the show’s production.
Moore began work on the exhibition while living in Chicago in January 2021, sorting through photographs of the museum’s collection online before moving to Claremont three months later in April.
He had “a long distance relationship with the works. And then I met them in person. And you just see it differently: you see how it looks under the light with your own eye, you actually see how the sense of scale is big, is small,” Moore said. “All those little things come together … I would say it was a process of becoming.”
Curators can use any number of starting points when creating a show: a theme, an exhibition The exhibition interrogates knowledge and its acquisition, a fitting theme for a college museum. Since Moore was tasked with selecting pieces from the Benton’s permanent collection, he began with the physical objects he had already selected. Only once the pieces came into conversation with each other did he uncover a unifying theme.
“What the show is striving to do,” Moore said, “is find works of art that are about knowledge and information: how we know what we know. So, what can art tell us about forms of knowledge and how the world is perceived? About how the world was perceived? It’s a way of knowing… [The show is about how] to receive it and the various ways that it can be communicated.”
The first piece that visitors see walking into the gallery is a large painting on the back wall. An acrylic by CalArts painter Jack Goldstein, the work is magnetic, drawing in visitors with a visual that emanates a nearly palpable heat. The untitled piece utilizes computer-generated imagery, bringing information and technology-based conceptions into the realm of art.
“[Goldstein] got really interested in making paintings that were of visual phenomenon[a] that the eye can’t perceive,” Moore said. “Because [during] this time telescopes, the Hubble telescope, computer generated images, even digital imagery was brand new, and it was bringing us phenomena of light that we couldn’t see with our own eyes.”
Investigating a similar idea of seeing as believing, the gallery’s opposite wall features 16 sixteen photographs by Patrick Nagatani. These works seek to explore hoaxes and fake news.
“He’s trying to get us to ask questions about the authority of photography,” Moore said. “It’s a little different now, but for a long time, before everyone had a camera in their hand, seeing was believing. But you can be manipulated very easily by a photograph. So, he’s making make-believe scenes that don’t really exist, but he’s using the tricks of the camera and photo montage to get us to believe in these images.”
Seamlessly integrating automobiles into the foregrounds of certain well-known locations — Stonehenge, for example — Nagatani uses his artistic vision to poke holes at understanding and the ways in which we are often too trusting when gathering knowledge.
Other pieces in the exhibition bear a more explicit connection to the theme of knowledge, like the 15th century alabaster carving titled “The Education of the Virgin.”
“In this alabaster,” Moore said, “[the Virgin Mary’s] mother is pointing at a lectern and instructing her daughter how to read. So, it’s about knowledge and women’s literacy. And then her father [is] standing off to the side… illustrating how a family should want their daughters to be educated and literate.”
The other works in the collection speak to knowledge on a wide spectrum of topics, from gender identity to climate change to religion to drugs. Seemingly disparate when considered separately, the works find cohesion under the subject of knowledge.
Bolstering this theme of the exhibition, many of the pieces’ labels ask questions of the visitors, leaving them with something to consider. The gallery’s main text testifies to this continuity in a message especially apt for students: “Our hope is that in thinking about these works of art you might consider knowledge not as a static body of facts or systems but as a consistent act of creation.”
Due to the gallery’s 10 person capacity, the show was not crowded, and this regulation allowed for viewers to enjoy the pieces in a quieter, more intimate moment. The exhibition will be on view for the entire spring semester, so there is plenty of time to experience this visual exploration of knowledge –– and plenty of time to come back around.
“It’s a show that people should revisit more than once,” Moore said. “It’s loose on the surface, but then it gets very dense.”