If 2014 is to be remembered by one social narrative in America, it’s the involvement of law enforcement in the black community. The world was still mourning the death of Trayvon Martin when NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his promise to end the often abused, racial profiling police tactic known as stop-and-frisk; Michael Brown was fatally shot in Ferguson by a cop—so were Rumain Brisbon and Ezell Ford—and the video of Eric Garner’s last words “I can’t breathe” went viral on the Internet. After US grand juries didn’t indict either officer involved in the Brown or Garner deaths, political unrest hit the streets with waves of protests that ranged from setting police cruisers on fire to officers escorting protestors to shut down the main highway in Miami during Art Basel. These enduring footprints establish a strong contemporary significance in artist Titus Kaphar’s conceptual framework. He carries this conversation into the New Year and to the forefront of the art world at both Jack Shainman Galleries in Chelsea. His two shows, Drawing the Blinds and Ashphalt and Chalk, opened on January 15th.
(left) Titus Kaphar with Gift of Shrouded Descent, 2014, Oil and mixed media on canvas. Photo of the artist by Kubiat Nnamdie, styled by Clarisse Benhaim
(right) Titus Kaphar, The Jerome Project (Asphaly and Chalk) I, 2014, Chalk on asphalt paper. © Titus Kaphar. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery
While studying at De Anza College in Cupertino, Kaphar took an African American Literature class. The seeds of his artistic practice were planted when he was introduced to the art of the Harlem Renaissance with Omonike Weusi Puryear. Nine years later he found himself as an Artist-in-Residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem, in the creative center of that historic movement.
In 2011 Kaphar launched the Jerome Project, which sprung from his findings after researching his father’s prison records. He found the files of 99 other incarcerated black men who shared his father's name: Jerome. This personal investigation materialized into an ongoing body of artwork on the overrepresentation of black males in the prison system. For Kaphar’s show at the Studio Museum, he painted the different Jeromes based on police portraits he found online. Each panel was dipped in tar at least up to the mouth to protect each man’s identity. The material also symbolizes the silencing of their individual rights and the great disparity in the racial makeup within the prison system.
Titus Kaphar, The Jerome Project (my loss), 2014, Oil, gold leaf and tar on wood panel, Diptych, Approximately 6 x 5 feet each panel. © Titus Kaphar. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
At the Asphalt and Chalk show at Jack Shainman’s 24th Street location, two striking portraits of Kaphar’s father and cousin are noticeable upon entrance due to the sheer large-scale of them. They are an extension of the Jerome Project. The space also holds white chalk sketches of unarmed black men who were fatally shot by police, including Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sean Bell, and Amadou Diallo. The drawings’ superimposed layers generate a dizzying result that alludes to the swelling pattern of black youths unjustly killed by law enforcement; they share effect.
Titus Kaphar, Space to Forget, 2014 oil on canvas 64 x 64 x 2 3/4 inches. © Titus Kaphar. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery
Although it runs thick in the blood of Kaphar’s work, it would be a great disservice to focus solely on its contemporary racial vernacular. The exhibit at the gallery’s 20th Street location, Drawing the Blinds, takes a step back in time and challenges the deeper role of tradition and its repressive veins through recorded history in painting. Kaphar gives form and authority not only to black men, but also to the women who have been objectified or erased altogether from the art historical canon. They surface through formal interruptions in the painting process—whether through a ripped opening in the canvas to expose an interracial love affair in Falling from the Gaze or camouflaging a woman with the green curtains behind her in Lost in the Shadows. In Space to Forget, the spirit of the house is released in the form of a woman who has become physically inseparable from the place of her domain; an outline of her right arm blends with the wooden floor she kneels down on, sweeping. The cutout of a child sits on her back, a place of their domain. The blank figure, however, is not the subject being overlooked as described in the title. It is the individual black woman who is buried in the collective art historical memory.
Titus Kaphar, Behind the Myth of Benevolence, 2014, Oil on canvas, 59 x 34 1⁄4 x 7 inches. © Titus Kaphar. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery
In what seems like an investigation on the infallibility of the American founding fathers, in Behind the Myth of Benevolence Kaphar takes a portrait of Thomas Jefferson and draws it back as a curtain to reveal another portrait of a black woman, transforming painting into sculpture. She is erotically painted in an Orientalist manner: seminude in a turban that addresses exotic fetishes found in the mythology of black sexuality. The “revealing-the-unseen” positioning behind a white man—a powerful US President who wrote the Declaration of Independence—sets the stage for a world of metaphors for the viewer to unravel. The artist points out fundamental problems in representation, then trusts his audience to create the narrative form. Above all Kaphar makes these creative jumps accessible.
(Image at top: Titus Kaphar with Boys in Winter, 2013, Oil on canvas, 64 x 64 x 1 1⁄2 inches. Photo of the artist by Kubiat Nnamdie, styled by Clarisse Benhaim)