Titus Kaphar: From a Tropical Space
October 1 – December 19, 2020
In the decade or so since Titus Kaphar’s work began to receive national attention (he earned an MFA from Yale in 2006), he has galvanized viewers with a series of performative actions that use handmade versions of characteristic period paintings to either reveal a condition of racial injustice in pictorial terms, or, in some works, even address the subjects’ personal histories as slaveholders. His range of techniques for “correcting” these replicas of the past have included cutting, shredding, and crumpling his canvases, as well as draping them, rolling them up, and dipping them in tar. Kaphar has also worked with more recent documentary content using comparable methods, most famously in the painting he produced in 2014 for Time Magazine’s cover story following racial justice demonstrations in Ferguson. This image focused on young male protestors, shown with their hands in the air while simultaneously being whitewashed out of the picture. Even in the face of current events, Kaphar’s core gesture of deploying paint to correct the historical record, as captured brilliantly in his 2017 TED talk, “Can art amend history?” begins with investigation. Kaphar pins down his source material using research that neatly aligns the corrective gesture with a broader historical context.
Upon encountering Kaphar’s exhibition of new paintings at Gagosian, two linked, salient points come to mind. In previous shows he has tended to appropriate an image or historical genre from the past for his own adaptation, while the resultant copies or replicas are painted by him. One peculiar consequence of this approach is that the underlying works have only needed to be visually compelling enough to pass muster as a type, prior to being subjected to Kaphar’s planned present-day overlay. In our reception of his art, we tend to value the underlying “original” relative to the artist’s performative gesture, which then serves as a kind of framing device. So it stands to reason that Kaphar never chose sources that were conspicuously beautiful, at least partly to sidestep the risk that they would become aesthetic distractions, potentially leading to mixed feelings about his interventions.
By contrast, the paintings at Gagosian focus on original subjects in contemporary settings—this is not an aspect of Kaphar’s work that has been fully explored before now, and the strain occasionally shows. Collectively titled From a Tropical Space, this group of paintings is centered on one or more Black women, all mothers, and all positioned either within a domestic space or in a liminal zone like a bus stop or suburban side street. In all of the paintings but one, children have been surgically removed from the composition, leaving toddler-shaped holes in the painted canvases. In many cases, the women face us or are turned in our direction, their gaze only sometimes meeting ours, and even then with an element of wariness. While a couple of the pictures depict what seem to be emergencies or their immediate wake, considering the general trauma of the missing children, most of the scenes are surprisingly neutral domestic interiors. This leaves a viewer with the unsettling impression that each woman remains unaware that she is clutching or watching over an empty space.
In comparison to Kaphar’s earlier work, these enigmatic new paintings are asked to bear a heavier burden of direct narrative, and the lack of an obvious relation between the absences and presences that Kaphar highlights here leaves us with a new and unfamiliar kind of disorientation. For example, From a Tropical Space (2019) shows two women waiting at the curb with a pair of vacated strollers. They are vividly detailed, but the surrounding neighborhood appears as a simplified backdrop, draining the scene of some of its implicit poignancy. Similarly, the facial expression of the woman nestling a non-existent toddler on her shoulder in Expecting (2019) speaks volumes, but the kitchen where she stands feels so hastily blocked in as to seem inconsequential. Beyond the conspicuously missing children, the exhibition is strewn with additional signs of trauma, further dislocated by Kaphar’s keyed-up color palette.
One work in the exhibition stands apart from the others in every sense, as it’s the final painting (i.e. closest to the exit), and is titled Final Chapter (2020). Lacking an excised baby to dominate the composition, the evocatively cinematic framing of this image pulls the viewer directly into its story. Three school-age children stand waist-deep mid-river, their backs to us as they face a woman in a blue dress who is in the process of appearing or disappearing. Her arms clutch at her sides as she gazes, trancelike, at the small girl in the middle, whose brother reaches protectively for her arm. Presented as a dynamic snapshot of a narrative whose particulars remain a mystery, the painting’s effectiveness centers on a dramatic tension concerning the unknown fate of the three children. They haven’t yet joined the ranks of the missing, but they definitely do not seem safe, either. This trio also has mothers, and although they’re not in the picture, they are unquestioningly somewhere, perhaps waiting anxiously for their children to come home.