Contemporary artists interested in race and gender often seek to revise history’s exclusionary narratives, written primarily by white men, by inserting non-white, non-male bodies into pictorial conventions that have traditionally ignored them. Titus Kaphar, in his first solo show at both branches of Jack Shainman Gallery, did this and more in his examination of US iconography. The name of the exhibition in the gallery’s main space, ‘Drawing the Blinds’, came from his series of historical portraits of white gentry that are peeled back, like curtains, to expose images of their black mistresses and slaves underneath. Also showcased were multi-figure compositions – re-created genre scenes of a sentimental variety, which cover or remove principal figures to bring black background actors into focus. In Gift of Shrouded Descent (2014), for instance, the triumphant man at the centre is wrapped, mummy-like, under yellow-stained canvas, drawing attention to the black boy in patronizingly ‘exotic’ garb on the right. Space to Forget (2014) shows a servant on all fours with a child-shaped hole on her back.
These works complicate the notion that presence alone is restorative. Kaphar’s figures remain tangled in the imbalanced power structures at play in the paintings’ first iterations. The black characters existed in the original canvases, though overlooked; the missing figures in the revised versions are without race, though their dominant positions in these intentionally outmoded constructs suggest they’re white.
In Ferguson, Missouri, the fatal shooting of an 18-year-old black man by a white police officer last August provoked protest and civil unrest in a community where tensions between the majority-black population and the majority-white city government and police are longstanding. Events there inspired Kaphar’s Yet Another Time for Remembrance (2014), the central piece in ‘Asphalt and Chalk’ in the gallery’s second space, and a work originally commissioned by TIME magazine. Protestors, covered with streaks of white paint, march with their arms up – a depiction that memorializes their struggle while anticipating that this history, too, will be whitewashed. The focus on contemporary events continues in selections from Kaphar’s ‘Jerome Project’ (2011–ongoing), mixed-media portraits of incarcerated men found on mugshot websites who share his father’s name. He canonizes them with round, gold-leaf paintings that look devotional, and with black and white chalk sketches that soften their likenesses.
Ultimately, though, Kaphar seems less interested in rehabilitating his subjects than in making conspicuous the processes through which they fall prey to historical erasure or, as in the mugshots, skewed representation. Stripes (2014) and Tax Collector (2011), from ‘Drawing the Blinds’, bravely show what it might look like for white figures to receive comparable treatment. In Stripes, a blue-eyed man in a powdered wig (a Founding Father, perhaps) is reduced to abstraction, the canvas cut into strips that are nailed, or crucified, to the wall around the frame. The subject of Tax Collector, a copy of Thomas Gainsborough’s Portrait of Thomas John Medlycott (c.1763), is cut out and unceremoniously dumped in a rubbish bin, next to which lies a paint-splattered jumpsuit – perhaps a nod to Aleksandr Rodchenko, the founder of constructivism, who was known for painting in a work suit of his own design.
Unlike the constructivists of 1917, Kaphar has no utopian mission, but the unapologetic violence he wreaks on these canvases suggests he might share some of that movement’s belief that art can right social wrongs or, at least, provoke nuanced discussion of the underlying structures that cause them. A debate about the extent of racial inequality in America is one that, sadly, feels most timely.