Titus Kaphar: Shape-Shifter
Confrontation with the self may begin fearfully, driven by a curiosity to know the self, and by default others. It often peaks, crests and stumbles over uncertain terrain that eventually becomes navigable. Thus far, Titus Kaphar’s oeuvre seems to have taken this type of journey. Driven by the artist’s inner transformation, Kaphar’s work has evolved from an objectified relationship to his canvas to a performative inhabiting of his work. In some ways, this evolution has posited Kaphar as master of his own ship, able to shape-shift between styles, materials, personas, inner doubts and external critics.
Taking Kaphar’s Study of Negro Reparation (2006) and Making Space (2011) as bookends, an arc from disempowerment to empowerment seems to emerge. In these works, Kaphar can be understood to represent both the individual and the collective. Study of Negro Reparation is a self-portrait created early in Kaphar’s career that appears to embody the journey that has unfolded thus far for him while simultaneously speaking to the shared experiences of people of African decent in the Americas and in Europe. Kaphar paints himself from the shoulders up, capturing a magnetism in his eyes that draws the viewer into his emotional self. Three sewn-up incisions on his face travel from chin to forehead, neck to hairline, and neck to the crown of his head. Two of the lines of stitches pass the edge of his eyes and the third the edge of an ear. The incisions run dangerously close to his eyes and ears, posing a question: do they mark a shift in perception?
With Making Space (2011), Kaphar added a public performative intervention to his more familiar processes of deconstructing classical European paintings. Created for the Bermuda National Gallery’s exhibition, Reinterpreting the European Collection, Kaphar chose to create a replica of a portrait of Thomas John Medlycott (c.1763) by British artist Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). Kaphar’s original plan was to whitewash the Medlycott replica using the traditional lime-based white paint that covers the roofs of houses all over the island. But after his first visit to Bermuda, Kaphar decided the figure needed a different manner of deconstruction. Nobody knew the details of how, when or where the altering of this replica would take place. The night of the opening, Kaphar entered the gallery dressed as a service worker in a blue jumpsuit and baseball cap toting a tool bag and a waste bin. He walked past bewildered guests directly to his work hung alongside the original Gainsborough and with a straight edge razor, cut the figure of Medlycott out of his painting and discarded it in the trash. Kaphar completed the construction and manipulation of his perceived identity by removing his service uniform to reveal a charcoal grey suit and bowtie and donned a fedora hat and sunglasses. He left the gallery leaving guests stunned and Medlycott’s dog gazing at the absence of his master.
Kaphar’s performance is a riff on Bermuda’s current socio-cultural affairs, definitive outgrowths of the power wielded historically by tax collectors like Thomas Medlycott. Making Space draws attention to the embedded hierarchy of historically disenfranchised and privileged populations that still infiltrate the theater of life in Bermuda. His actions can be understood as a microcosm of his own artistic process – the deconstruction and retelling of layers of meaning, perception, subjective truths and formal strategies through historical narratives, ornamentation, painting and sculpture. The combination of the performance, Gainsborough’s piece, and Kaphar’s replica cut-out highlights the fragility of façades and the opportunity for reconciliation left in their demise.
Kaphar’s recent body of cutouts explores the nature of façades from a different angle. The cutout figures in Modesty (2011), Moonlight (2011) and On the Beach (2011) evoke a discourse on power - the power of the artist to reveal and conceal. Kaphar leaves the eyes of the woman portrayed in Modesty, along with raised arms twisting her brown hair. Her body has been partially cut from the painting, then rolled and crumpled, obscuring the woman’s torso in elegant folds of canvas. This removal can be read as a narrative technique, reminding viewers of the artist’s reflective decision-making process that is central to each work. The absence of nudity in both paintings suggests the mystery of these women is not to be found in taking off their clothes or exposing their bodies. They will not be reduced to their physical forms, which are impossible to see or contact.
Kaphar addresses the idea of contact in Rapture (2011) and Susan and the Elders (2012). In Rapture, the male figure in the painting seems blinded by the seductiveness hidden from the viewer in Modesty, Moonlight and On the Beach. Eyes closed and naked, he is lifting a woman who pushes him away with her hands, thighs and feet – only her body is no longer in the painting. In the bottom right, a cat hides under the bed, witness to the danger, fear and helplessness. Kaphar’s choice to remove the figure here, dis-locating her individuality, enhances the language of enticement within his narrative. Unable to possess the intangible quality of sensual allure without the woman’s consent, the man seeks to possess the woman by any means necessary. But Kaphar does not leave her in the hands of her aggressor; he places her somewhere else, in a realm that remains a mystery, leaving only the presence of her absence.
The motion of resistance returns in Susan and the Elders where Susan’s façade loses composure. Her tangible fear and test of physical power is brutally present through her sculpted physicality. The weight of history and Susan’s place within it is symbolized by the Baroque painting that she struggles to push away as it crumbles around her. In many ways this sculptural assemblage distills the historical relationship between man and woman around the globe. A power struggle that at its core is often defined by physical prowess and confrontation. With the crumpling of the painting, the dissolution of this dynamic suggests an empty vacuum, where the female identity must confront itself.
Susan and the Elders echoes with the violence of Study of Negro Reparation, the fear for one’s life portrayed in Rapture, and the act of annihilation carried out in the Making Space performance. Each piece’s attempt to move beyond its formal constraints through a gestural language of cutting, sewing, sculpting and painting, suggests a conversational engagement by Kaphar with the work, where he does not work upon his creations but in collusion with his materials. This experimental engagement and intentional revisiting of techniques of painting, sewing and cutting, suggest a willingness to not only confront change and transformation, but to seek it out. However, as much as Kaphar’s work appears to be about an ongoing relationship with materials and techniques, by default or otherwise, its façade of referencing from history also allows Kaphar to examine the historical construction of identity. Alongside his shape-shifting techniques, Kaphar’s re-imagining of the collective consciousness of historical time periods and the collective will of the historical canon of art makes space for hidden narratives to be told and lost interpretations to surface.