2020 has been a sensational year for American artist, Titus Kaphar, whose deeply personal works have received critical acclaim and have resonated with people around the world. Having obtained his MFA from Yale University in 2006, Kaphar has become a renowned painter, sculptor, filmmaker and installation artist, who uses his art as a way of confronting history, highlighting the marked absence of marginalised people in the artistic canon. Dismantling traditional Western artistic structures and styles of representation, Kaphar sparks a dialogue with and amongst his viewers, forcing them to reconsider ‘what they know or think they know, as real.’i Well Kept was featured as part of his momentous first New York solo exhibition, Classical Disruption (2011) at Friedman Benda, in which he reconfigured classical paintings in a variety of media, including paintings, sculptures, and works on paper with tar, emphasising the construction and elusive nature of knowledge and history. Striving to reveal a lost or hidden truth, Kaphar’s works are profound in their beauty and narrative capabilities.
An act of ‘tender violence’
"I’ve come to realise that all reproduction, all depiction is fiction—it’s simply a question of to what degree." —Titus Kaphar
In Well Kept, Kaphar wraps an unidentifiable woman in drapes of raw canvas, concealing her from the viewer so that only her pale hand is visible, indicative of her race. This material is stitched onto the canvas of the painting, and coloured a deep cobalt blue, in order to resemble the billowing dress of the figure. It is only after contemplating the image for a few moments, discovering small details such as the hanging bare threads at the bottom of the canvas, that the viewer realises that Kaphar has disrupted this familiar scene, and ‘the viewers must labour to deduce what exactly is going on’.ii Kaphar draws on American sociologist, W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of the veil, cloaking his figure in the adoption of this visual metaphor that symbolises the ‘social separation of the black and white worlds, and the layers of miseducation and devaluation that disrupt the possibility of visible clarity and lucid communication between the races’.ii By concealing the figure that exists beneath the cloth in what Bridget R. Cooks describes as an act of ‘tender violence’,ii Kaphar amends rather than attempts to erase history through his reimagining of this historical image. Although subtle, Kaphar’s work powerfully ‘dismantles the process of perception’ii to expose history as a construction, which both reveals and conceals the experiences of the past.
Kaphar uses a pastoral landscape background, a classical standard of 17th Century and 18th Century grand portraiture, to mimic a trusted and respected ‘time-honoured tradition of painting’ii, before vandalising what we thought to be familiar. The covered figure stands in front of an Arcadian landscape in which a large boulder frames a woodland view; a distinct landscape trope made popular in the 17th Century by the famed portraitist, Sir Antony van Dyck. The leading court painter in Europe at the time, van Dyck espoused a genre of portraits where aristocratic men and women would stand in front of curtains, classical columns, bare rocks and wild landscape, all loaded with symbolic meaning. This motif was popularised among the British aristocracy and was later adopted by significant British portrait painters, including Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds. The background of Well Kept is almost identical to the classical landscape depicted in van Dyck’s Lady Anne Carey, Later Viscountess Claneboye and Countess of Clanbrassil (ca. 1636) and Lady Frances Cranfield, Lady Buckhurst, later Countess of Dorset (ca. 1637), illustrating Kaphar’s choice of van Dyck as his subject of disruption. Additionally, the women in these paintings represent the aristocratic historical figure whose depictions we see continuously repeated throughout history, and who Kaphar is urging us to look beyond, and consider those whose images have not been recorded or represented in the canon of art history. In Well Kept, as in other paintings from his Classical Disruption series such as Fidelity (2010), Kaphar includes a small canine companion, referencing his dismay that there is more written about dogs in art history than there is about racial, ethnic and minority groups.
"The expressionist remaking of the past inspires the viewer to look, decipher, and create new narratives for understanding." —Bridget R. Cooks
Joining the Gagosian gallery in May of this year, Kaphar’s career continues to rise to new heights. Recently, his profound painting portraying a grieving Black mother was featured on the cover of Time Magazine’s June 2020 issue during the protests on behalf of Black Lives, powerfully depicting the fear Black mothers feel for their children. Kaphar’s work has been featured in numerous major exhibitions, including Redaction at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2019) and History in the Making at the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle (2009), and he is currently exhibiting From a Tropical Space at Gagosian in New York, which will be on view until 19 Dec 2020.
i Lindsey Davis, ‘Dismantling History: An Interview with Titus Kaphar’, Art21 Magazine, Nov/Dec 2015 Issue, 2 Dec 2015, online.
ii Bridget R. Cooks, Titus Kaphar: Classical Illusion, New York, 2011, p. 5.