Painter Titus Kaphar rejects the myths of American Benevolence by Jessica Lynne
Titus Kaphar is perhaps, the most important artist to have exhibited work in New York City this winter. Is that a lofty claim? Probably. Does that bother me? No.
The more I learn about the field of contemporary art, the more I learn that it can be a realm far removed from the minutiae of daily life of most people. No city encapsulates this troubling energy more than New York City. The gap between the city’s art world elite and us “regular” folks is wide, my friends. In his 2014 New York Times article “Lost in the Gallery-Industrial Complex” Holland Cotter offers this insightful characterization:
The reality is that, directly or indirectly, in large ways and small, the current market system is shaping every aspect of art in the city: not just how artists live, but also what kind of art is made, and how art is presented in the media and in museums.
Last November, as communities across the five boroughs, indeed the country, righteously raged against the machines of police impunity while screaming Black Lives Matter, the last place I wanted to be was in a New York City art place. I decided to take a break. In that moment, navigating the intersectional politics of race, gender and class were more overwhelming than ever before. To do that inside the lily white cube? Unbearable. No more art places for three months, I told myself (even as ARTS.BLACK was preparing to launch).
Though Cotter is speaking specifically of the New York City art scene in his essay, his words could more accurately be applied to the field of contemporary art a large. It is in the best interest of the mega dealers and mega gallerists, mega collectors, and yes, even artists to buy, sell, create, and publicly tout art that yields the highest return. Work that pleases individuals to whom Cotter refers to in the same article as neophyte buyers, work that has become art shopping chic.This is the landscape that on most days leaves me annoyed at best, disinterested at worst.
And then Titus Kaphar’s The Jerome Project opened at The Studio Museum in Harlem.
On the heels of Art Basel Miami, the opening of the Jerome Project seemed a bit like divine timing. Now, we know that an incredible amount of planning and time precedes the opening of any museum’s exhibition. But this show opened and my God, I didn’t want to be in any other place but that art place.
The Jerome Project is a series of large portraits depicting the faces of Black men named Jerome (the same name as the artist’s father) who have been incarcerated. To emphasize the amount of time each young man spent in prison, the portraits were dipped in tar to various levels covering at least the mouth. Emerging from Kaphar’s historical research about the American criminal Justice system as well as the life of his formerly incarcerated father, it is a body of work that is at once deeply personal and extremely far reaching in implications.
According to the 2015 report from The Sentencing Project, Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity Throughout the Criminal Justice System, Black and Latino individuals comprise 56% of the nation’s prison population despite constituting only 30% of the nation’s population. For Black men, the focus of the Jerome Project, the numbers are even starker. Kaphar began working on the series in 2011 and has stated that the project was influenced by Michelle Alexander’s seminal text The New Jim Crow. Alexander’s book profoundly articulates the ways African-American men, are disproportionately affected by the codes of U.S. Criminal Justice system resulting in racial caste policies not unlike those enacted under the era of Jim Crow. Men, who to most people, will never be anything more than a mugshot, branded for life. Men, like Kaphar’s father, forever plagued by a flawed system. The Jerome Project does not attempt to excuse the committed acts that have resulted in a prison sentence for any of the subjects but rather, simply makes visible their stories.
That the Jerome Project humanizes at least some of the individuals caught in this web is why this work is so urgent. It is hard not to look at the portraits and not think of someone who could easily have been a friend or classmate or loved one.
And yet, we know that even for those Black men who have never interacted with the prison industrial complex, the mere act of existing freely in one’s community poses a threat. In New York, the response is Stop - And - Frisk. In Florida, Stand Your Ground. The art world partied in Miami and I marched across the Brooklyn Bridge with my hands up. It was friend working in finance who first sent me the press release for Kaphar’s now closed show at the Jack Shainman Gallery. Weren’t you just telling me about this guy, he asked.
I made another art place exception and went to see the show.
Divided between the gallery’s two locations, the work on view continued to address social inequities through Kaphar’s signature manipulation of paintings and portraiture. Asphalt and Chalk, exhibited at the gallery’s 24th Street location, is a series of portraits created using the materials for which the show is named. Drawings such as Asphalt and Chalk I and Asphalt and Chalk IV depict the faces of innocent Black men murdered by police and community vigilantes - Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Sean Bell - distorted into one image. Again I say their names: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sean Bell. In this portion of the show, oil paintings depicting images of Ferguson protesters were also on view. These particular paintings were whitewashed via broad brushstrokes to reflect looming acts of narrative erasure that all too often occurs after the untimely, unjust killings of Black men.
On view at the gallery’s 20th street location, Drawing The Blinds, responded to 18th and 19th century romanticized American history that repeatedly ignores and reduces the legacy of slavery, genocide and racially motivated violence in this country. A long perpetuated myth that Kaphar shreds, quite literally, with paintings such as (name paintings) That Kaphar’s practice reminds us that the trauma enacted on Black bodies in the U.S. is nothing new is why his work matters.
Titus Kaphar’s art is something onto which I can hold. It is striking in both form and function. “It marries,” as Hanna Giorgis writes in her recent Guardian US column, “...the personal and political, arrang[ing] festering sores of social circumstance into striking patterns that are hypnotic as they heal.” It indicts. It confronts. It reminds. It is not art shopping chic. Smack dab in the middle of the gallery- industrial complex, it is work that refuses to be ignored.
The Jerome Project continues at The Studio Museum Harlem until March 8, 2015.
Jessica Lynne is co-editor of ARTS.BLACK