By Graham Ambrose for The Boston Globe - 15 August 2018
When artist Titus Kaphar left New York City for New Haven, his friends made sure he knew: “ ‘Your career is over,’ ” Kaphar remembers their saying. “ ‘What’re you doing? You’re leaving the mecca! ’”
New Haven, nicknamed the Elm City,was not the Concrete Jungle. And that was the point: It had fertile soil in which Kaphar has since raised a family, emerged as an eminent American visual artist, and, in turn, helped water a sprouting arts scene.
Now Kaphar’s influence is being recognized. The 42-year-old has been awarded the 2018 Rappaport Prize by the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, in Lincoln, a $25,000 annual prize given to an artist with a proven record of achievement and a strong connection to New England.
“Titus represents the exact kind of artist we want to celebrate, an artist engaged in social issues who makes strongly visual work,” said John Ravenal, the deCordova’s executive director. “He’s a powerful advocate in his art and his actions.
”My work deals with history directly,” Kaphar said in a recent phone interview. “Coming to New England, seeing the history of this place, seeing the beautiful architecture that’s been around for hundreds of years, was mind-blowing for me. It was a direct inspiration for the work.”
One painting, “Absconded From the Household of the President of the United States,” buries a portrait of George Washington beneath a fall of rusted nails and shredded yellow paper. It’s an advertisement, from 1796, promising a reward of $10 “for the capture of Oney Judge,” a fugitive slave owned by the first president.
Another work, “Behind the Myth of Benevolence,” on display at the National Portrait Gallery, in Washington, D.C., turns a painting of Thomas Jefferson into a curtain partially covering the portrait of a black woman. The painting-sculpture is a literal representation of how American artists have valorized a pantheon of heroes and relegated other, less-recognized persons to the background.