A painter’s new show ventures away from the past, toward contemporary traumas in Black lives.
By Roberta Smith Oct. 16, 2020
Titus Kaphar’s paintings have always been blunt in confronting both the paucity of Black figures in traditional Western art and the tragic inequities of Black life in the United States. Mr. Kaphar accomplishes this by being a skilled realist painter adept at violating his medium in startling ways to make his points, whether by tearing or cutting his canvases, or covering parts of his images with tar or whitewash. His paintings are conceptual objects freighted with historical or present-day references that require little explanation. They verge on didactic except for the visual richness and emotional directness with which they examine their entwined subjects.
With his show of 11 new paintings, Mr. Kaphar becomes the latest successful Black artist to have been taken up by a blue-chip gallery — Gagosian — acting on instincts at once admirable and calculating. And like other artists in similar situations — Mark Bradford, Kehinde Wiley and Theaster Gates — Mr. Kaphar has made a determined effort to give back. In 2018, he founded, with the entrepreneur Jason Price and the sculptor Jonathan Brand, a New-Haven nonprofit incubator called NXTHVN to train emerging artists and curators of color.
Mr. Kaphar’s aesthetic efforts walk along an unusually fine line between art and activism. Among his best-known works (not in this show) is “Behind the Myth of Benevolence” (2014), in which a careful, flipped replica of Gilbert’s Stuart’s portrait of Thomas Jefferson has been partly removed from its stretcher and hangs to one side, like a drawn–back curtain. Behind this, solidly attached to the stretcher, is a second canvas and another layer of the great man’s personal history: an intimate portrayal of a beautiful young Black woman. Her image refers to Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman of mixed race who belonged to Jefferson, and whose six children were in all likelihood fathered by him.
Mr. Kaphar’s “Jerome Project” — an ongoing series — consists of small portraits of incarcerated Black men (based on their mug shots), painted on gold leaf, like icons and then dipped in thick tar, up to their chins or lips or even their foreheads. The works stand as visceral symbols of oppression and obliteration.