Titus Kaphar’s body of work engages a wide range of historical subjects and artistic traditions, both faux-canonical and actual. Recognizing that art inevitably introduces the fictitious even when employing nonfictional reference, Kaphar creates paintings, drawings, installations, and sculptures that challenge received narratives by drawing attention to fabrication and form, inviting viewers to re-envision American history.
A Fight for Remembrance reflects on racial dynamics between African Americans and whites from the period of American slavery to present-day crises involving black civilians and law enforcement agencies. Although Kaphar’s work coheres to present the long lineage of race relations in the U.S., his use of medium calls attention to particular threads within that history: Three of the seven pieces here—Boys in Winter, 1968/2014 (a diptych), and Another Fight for Remembrance: Study—examine the subversion and struggle of the black male in America from Jim Crow to the Black Power Movement to the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri. After rendering his subjects in oil paint, Kaphar applies bold strokes of white over them—a technique he calls “whitewashing”—and then outlines their bodies in black, reinforcing their presence in a way that acknowledges their altered lives and memorializes various facets of their trials.
In addition to paint, Kaphar manipulates other materials to emphasize his subjects’ potential absence from and/or presence within American society and its narratives. In Drawing the Blinds, a piece that speaks to the oft-shrouded sexual relationships between white men and black women during American slavery, Kaphar presents a black female figure barely covered by a red cloth, above which a second canvas is rolled like a drawn-up shade and held in place by a red fiber; on that second canvas is the upper portion of a white male face rendered in black and white, his eyes engaging the viewer, his given canvas rolled down just enough to obscure the woman’s gaze. The fiber holding up the canvas enters the richly hued painting below as a single line of oiled red, which the woman holds in her hand, against her chest. Does the fiber extend down to the cloth covering the woman—and if so, who is, has been, or will be in control?
Also included are two pieces from Kaphar’s ongoing Jerome Project, which he began in 2011 while searching for his estranged father’s prison records. The artist located mug shots of scores of men who share his father’s name, and this discovery led him to consider the inordinate number of incarcerated black males. Working with wood panels of equal size, Kaphar began casting them in gold leaf and painting portraits of many Jeromes, which he then dipped in tar, obscuring the faces proportionate to the amount of time served. This artistic act, while acknowledging the erasure of these men’s lives, at the same time restores some of the privacy stripped from them by the publicly available criminal records that present the men as a condemned group connected to the public and to each other only by their status as convicts.
When asked by TIME in 2014 to speak about how he brings his art to fruition given the social situations with which he engages, Kaphar spoke of the gravity of the task: “Honestly, it feels beyond me. What I make ends up feeling more like catharsis than communication.” The variety of media and the boldness of presentation in Kaphar’s oeuvre demonstrate consistent engagement with this challenge, bringing histories of brutality—and the need for reconstruction and deepening of those histories—to dynamic light.
All images © Titus Kaphar. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.