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CMA holds show celebrating Karl Benjamin’s influence

Claremont Museum of Art’s new exhibit, “Intersecting at the Edge: Karl Benjamin, Heather Gwen Martin and Eric Zammitt,” is both a tribute to the late Mr. Benjamin’s ongoing influence and a look at how two contemporary artists have processed that legacy.

Dion Johnson, 43, is the guest curator of Intersecting at the Edge.

“To see how much presence and the type of exciting conversation [Mr. Benjamin’s work] has with two contemporary artists, a way of working and a perspective of seeing color and surface, something that he created and something that they are able to tap into, it really helps to bring a new context to Karl’s work,” he said.

Along with curating Intersecting at the Edge, Mr. Johnson is an accomplished artist on his own. He’s exhibited across the US and his work is in collections here and in Europe.

He teaches art and art history at the University of La Verne, where he also serves as the school’s director of art galleries. The Pasadena resident attended Claremont Graduate University, where he studied under Mr. Benjamin from 1998 until his graduation in 2000. They remained friends until the artist’s death in 2012.

The initial spark for the new show took place a few years ago at a retrospective of Mr. Benjamin’s groundbreaking “hard edge” work.

“I immediately thought that so many years later, taking another look at his lesser known three-dimensional pieces as a starting point, and how he would relate to artists of different generations, it would make us think about what influenced Karl and what he helped to set in motion for younger artists,” Mr. Johnson said.

The museum’s board of directors president is Elaine Turner. She invited Mr. Johnson to curate the show, and said she’s thrilled with the result.

“All three artists have been influenced by Karl Benjamin, who is of course one of our key legacy artists. Also, [Mr. Johnson] knows the family, so he contacted [them] to see if they would give permission to show the influence of Karl, and of course the Benjamin family was very supportive right away.’’

“I thought it was a wonderful juxtaposition of my dad’s art and the other two artists,” said Beth Benjamin, Mr. Benjamin’s 67-year-old daughter. “I love the pieces that [Mr. Johnson] chose, and the relationship between them. I thought he did a great job on that.”

The show, one might say, is a “pay it forward” moment for the late Mr. Benjamin.

“In a sense, yes, it is,” said Mr. Johnson. At CGU, “I was struck by how much he was engaged with younger artists, and how he was interested in people who were not necessarily making paintings the way he was. He saw himself as a part of something much bigger, where contemporary painting is and where it will go. And that’s really valuable, to be a painter of his prominence and be so generous with other artists.”

Canadian born-Ms. Martin works in oil painting. She studied at the University of California, San Diego and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her work has been seen in museum and gallery exhibitions in Italy, New York, Detroit and Houston.

She is part of the forthcoming exhibition “Chaos and Awe Painting for the 21st Century” at the Frist Art Museum, Nashville, Tennessee, which will travel to the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia.

Los Angeles native Mr. Zammitt creates paintings and sculptures in the medium of colored Plexiglas. He has shown in the US and internationally, and his work is part of many private and public collections including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Lancaster, California’s Museum of Art and History and the Gerald E. Buck Collection.

One has to wonder if it is difficult for Ms. Benjamin to take part in these retrospective shows, where so much of her late father is laid bare.

“I live in his house,” she said. “So, I actually feel like he’s still here. And I was able to come down and tuck him in at the end, so I don’t have much pain about him being gone, except I’d love to talk with him some more. This house, [her mother and father] built. I left at 17, but it’s kind of the same way it ever was here, with the same furniture and all of that. He could easily just be around the corner, which is a nice feeling. I was really close to my dad.”

Mr. Benjamin’s work continues to reverberate. It will be part of the massive Art Basel show in Miami in December, and is will be featured in another show early next year in Los Angeles.

“There’s actually a lot of work that’s about to be seeable,” Ms. Benjamin said.

Intersecting at the Edge: Karl Benjamin, Heather Gwen Martin and Eric Zammitt will be up through September 16 at Claremont Museum of Art, at 200 W. First St., Claremont.

The museum is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. Admission is $5. Children 18 and under are admitted free.

More information is available at claremontmuseum.org, by phone at (909) 621-3200, or via email at info@claremontmuseum.org.

—Mick Rhodes

mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com