Survey: Titus Kaphar


There are always multiple narratives. I’m asking the viewer to try to piece that whole story together without leaving behind the valuable narrative of, in many cases, those people who have been silenced over the years. 

The works in Survey comprise a ten-year survey of Titus Kaphar’s conceptual approaches to historical vision. Throughout several distinct bodies of work, Kaphar has articulated a visual framework for reconsidering the legacy of the colonial era through art history. He has constructed provocations in dialogue with peer and preceding artists and authors such as Rembrandt Peale, Robert Rauschenberg, Fred Wilson, KwamenaBlankson, and Reginald Dwayne Betts. This exhibition includes a profound selection of work from a celebrated career that, in many ways, has just begun. 


Kaphar’s selection of materials is key to the impact of his art. While his use of oil and canvas firmly place him within the tradition of high art painting, his appropriation of tar, rusted nails, asphalt paper, and ink, blackens and weights the tradition. In the paintings Pushing Back the Light and Earth and Sky (both 2012) Kaphar references the work of Impressionist artist Claude Monet. He sets the scene of each work by reproducing compositional elements along with the vibrant palettes and alla prima brushstrokes. The limitless blue sky of Earth and Sky is encroached upon by swirls of  thick tar that descend from the ornate edges of the peeling, gilded frame. Waves of tar forge a river across an inviting walking path within a colorful meadow that recalls Monet’s painted poppy fields of Argenteuil. The breezy afternoon sky of Monet’s Woman with a Parasol/Madame Monet and Her Son (1875) is shoved to the edges in Pushing Back the Light to make way for the viscous black expanse that replaces it. Kaphar’s interference in color, texture, and framing question the idyllic projections of each scene as if to ask: What else was going on in the late nineteenth century that would tell another story? What was life like for the non-leisure class that enabled such a joyous and picturesque afternoon? Kaphar’s adaptation of unconventional objects forces the reevaluation of materials and meanings acceptable for painting as narrative form. 


Kaphar’s treatment of finished paintings as surfaces to be whitewashed, cut, and gutted makes him rebel, laborer, and visionary. In Yet Another Fight for Remembrance (2014) he depicts a group of African American men in the position now known as “Hands up, don’t shoot!” that became ubiquitous in the United States after the killing of African American teenager Michael Brown by a White police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Lights from police cars flash in the nighttime scene, while hands, cell phones, and eyes are lifted in a blended gesture of surrender and protest. Their act of peaceful defiance in response to another government sanctioned murder of Black youth is marred by the white brushstrokes that cover their arms, mouths, and torsos. The black painted outlines that re-form their presence demonstrate the ongoing struggle for visibility and recognition.


In the Seeing Through Time series, Kaphar strategically layers his canvases to at once obscure and reveal. The confident young woman in Seeing Through Time 8 (2019) appears through the cut-out shape of a long, powdered wig. She and her young, well-dressed companion bear luxurious gifts for the viewer. The maritime scene in the background, and the masculine profile that frames her suggest a complex relationship of exchange, industry, and prosperity. In Flay (2019) Kaphar presents the sliced portrait of early American president, James Madison. The narrow fringes of canvas flay the figure open. Flipped over and pinned to the wall, the exploded strips reject the coherence of a portrait. The elegant dissection casts shadows of Madison’s broken presence. 


The large format painting State number one, Marcus Bullock (2019) is linked to the artist’s ongoing series, The Jerome Project, started in 2014. In these works, Kaphar reinterprets the style of Byzantine religious icons—contemplative portraits of holy figures nestled within gold leaf—by changing the subjects to incarcerated African American men. In original works from The Jerome Project, Kaphar created a series of 97 small, devotional scale portraits sourced from public mugshot websites and dipped in tanks of tar at a depth reflective of the subject’s time served in prison. Kaphar reserved larger scale works for portraits of individuals close to him, including family and friends who suffered the same fate as these men. In this work, Marcus looks directly ahead with a serious and concerned expression. His brown skin glows with a light matched by the reflective gold leaf that surrounds the softness of his hair. The gold-speckled tar at the bottom of the painting covers just enough of his jaw to deny the possibility of speech. Relegated to silence, the viewer must discern his story in the contrast between radiance and punishment. State number one, Marcus and a selection of works on paper are part of a further exploration of the subject of criminal justice reform, titled Redaction. A collaboration with poet and legal scholar Reginald Dwayne Betts, portraits in juxtaposition with poetic redactions create an arresting image of the criminal justice system, asking the public to both see and listen. This body of work was exhibited at MOMA PS1 in Spring 2019.


Kaphar’s artworks are reports from the future. His cultural hindsight discloses an experience of knowing that always was. He instigates disruption that troubles the still waters of historical narratives of progress. Combining perspectives of the colonizer with the colonized, the dead with the living, the master with the enslaved, and the colonial with the contemporary, Kaphar brings layers of clarity to the multivalent consequences of racial thinking.


Bridget R. Cooks, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Department of Art History
Department of African American Studies
University of California, Irvine

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