Art

Titus Kaphar Sets Out to Comment on History and Winds Up Making It

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Black men in America, the headlines tell us, are under surveillance. But it’s one thing to understand the soul-crushing phenomenon of walking while black and another
entirely to experience it. For artist Titus Kaphar, the latest indignity came last year as he and his brother strolled the gallery stretch of Tenth Avenue. Two undercover NYPD officers stopped them, hands on guns, and accused them of being part of a “black ring of art thieves.” To add brazen irony to racist injury, the Yale-trained artist was just then working on a series of paintings
related to police violence that he is currently exhibiting at the Studio Museum in Harlem and at Jack Shainman’s two Chelsea spaces.

Kaphar has made a regular practice of literally rumpling, tearing, sewing, cutting, and shredding his own eighteenth- and nineteenth-century-inspired paintings to expose art history’s bigoted underside. Yet the painter has gained
national attention recently less for his
examination of longstanding art world
issues than for turning a colder eye to
urgent real-world problems. After inaugurating an exhibition of pictures called “The Jerome Project” at the Studio Museum in November — the show’s five tar-on-gold-leaf paintings are based on mug shots of people who share his father’s name — Kaphar came to the attention of a Time art director who commissioned him to create a painting for the magazine’s “Person of the Year” feature. The subject: the latter-day Selma, Alabama, that is today’s Ferguson, Missouri. (The “Ferguson Protesters,” collectively, were one of four runners-up to the magazine’s top pick, “The Ebola Fighters.”)

The result, Yet Another Fight for
Remembrance
, depicts protesters with arms raised above their heads in the now-familiar “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture. It is an image of searing intensity that invokes both the present and the age-old forces that have brought us to this latest civil rights battleground. If the brown faces in the painting are largely obscured by strokes of white paint, it’s because the artist wanted to evoke simultaneously his subjects’ presence and their absence. As Kaphar told one interviewer, the most accurate portrayal of this watershed event demanded that he get a jump on its concurrent whitewashing.

On view at Jack Shainman’s new space on 24th Street along with several related paintings and drawings, Yet Another Fight is part of a two-gallery show Kaphar has split between his more recent works and pieces done in his signature art-historical vein, the latter of which hang at Shainman’s original space on 20th Street. In this unintentional mano a mano, the Ferguson-inspired pictures far outshine the Old Master–ish works. Kaphar’s fake vintage canvases deliver on their slice-and-dice revisionism, but they are upstaged by something more forceful: critical subject matter rendered with compelling directness.

Titled “Drawing the Blinds,” the
assemblage of twelve oil paintings at 20th Street features works that use one or more canvases to alternately hide and reveal power relations among the artist’s faux-canonical subjects. Among these is the
title work: a canvas depicting a nude black female, over which a second piece of painted cloth, representing the white male gaze, is pulled up like a literal shade.
Another painting, The Myth of Benevolence, seconds Kaphar’s curtain trope: Thomas Jefferson’s pleated image playing hide-and-seek with a postcoital Sally Hemings at her toilette. But these images and others — like Holy Absence II, featuring Jesus cut out from the cross and a black male peeking through the opening — enact their own clichés. Front and center here is the artist’s over-earnest attempt to officially redress art history. Lead-footed and righteous, Kaphar’s 20th Street show can feel like touring Colonial Williamsburg while listening to an audiotape of the film Dear White People.

At 24th Street, on the other hand, cunning gems beckon: Four graphite drawings of black men’s faces, each done on two pieces of paper in the manner of exquisite corpses; five works done in chalk on
asphalt paper, each of which overlays outlines of headshots of several men. One of the latter images confuses the features of Michael Brown, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, and Trayvon Martin, making identification impossible. The result is a bullet to the heart. Few pieces I’ve seen this decade prove as moving or as guileful.

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