Exhibition review

New Alte̲rs: Reworking Devotion

by Sarah Mackay | 2 May 2022

Content Warning:​ This article discusses racially motivated murder.

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The cover of TIME magazine's June 15, 2020 issue, featuring Titus Kaphar's painting, Analogous Colors, 2020. © Titus Kaphar. Photo: TIME

Titus Kaphar’s first exhibition in London, New Alters: Reworking Devotion, currently on view at Gagosian gallery’s Grosvenor Hill location, is a moving contemplation on the interconnectedness of spirituality and artmaking, and the current and continuing relevance of the history of representation in art. Kaphar is perhaps best known for his cover for TIME magazine’s Protest issue from June 15, 2020, which features a portrait of a Black woman clasping the hollowed out silhouette of her child to her breast. The stirring image recalls George Floyd’s heart-wrenching shouts for his own mother as he was arrested, pinned down, and murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, a senseless atrocity that sparked uprisings around the world. A painter, sculptor, installation artist, and filmmaker, Kaphar has consistently grappled with weighty issues such as politics, race, and society in his work. By reexamining Western art historical narratives, he works to expose how entrenched power structures and modes of representation have impacted Black identity. By appropriating and recontextualising canonical visual vocabularies and motifs, Kaphar invents, and thus sets into motion, more inclusive present and future histories.

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Titus Kaphar, From Whence I Came, 2022, oil on canvas, duct tape, in 2 pars, 108 1/16 x 167 11/16 x 2 3/4 in (274.5 x 426 x 7 cm). © Titus Kaphar

New Alters: Reworking Devotion hums an identifiable tune; that is to say, the exhibition revisits and recycles a pictorial language that is characteristically Kaphar. His recognisable cut-outs, collage elements, and crumpled canvases feature throughout. Nevertheless, by implementing his entire arsenal of artistic techniques used to date, the artist manages to create a stimulating assortment of objects that generally feel fresh.

 

With its walls painted in slate grey, and a few small church pews scattered about the galleries, Gagosian’s typical white-cube atmosphere is transformed into a sacred space that compliments the fusion of secular and spiritual captured in Kaphar’s works. Directly across from the main gallery entrance, a large-scale, two canvas painting entitled From Whence I Came (2022) depicts the recognisable biblical tale of the flight into Egypt. Duct-taped atop each of the white-skinned biblical characters faces, however, are smaller canvases showing the visage of a Black male figure. He serves to reverse the white washing of Christian imagery that has occurred throughout time. The painting is a forthright reminder that the picture of a porcelain-skinned, blonde-haired Virgin and Child—think, for example, Raphael Sanzio’s (1483–1520) Madonna del Prato (1506) —is undoubtedly beautiful, but also blatantly inaccurate and, according to Kaphar, quite harmful.

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Titus Kaphar, Doubt, 2022, wax with gold enamel and oil on canvas, 56 5/16 x 34 1/4 x 33 7/8 in (143 x 87 x 86 cm). © Titus Kaphar

In other instances, erasure and destruction are used to strike a similar tone. Doubt (2022), a bronze sculpture in the second gallery, shows a kneeling Black figure. As he leans backwards, he clasps a wrinkled canvas painted with a religious scene within his arms. His eyes wide open and his mouth agape, the figure’s expression hovers between awe, terror, and poignant sadness. The moment depicted is difficult to discern: is the man furious, in the act of destroying yet another emblem of the exclusionist tendencies of the Western art historical cannon? Or is he overcome, claiming the depicted religious scene as his own as he pulls the rumpled fabric in for a transcendent embrace? Perhaps, it is both—anger and euphoria as sacred and profane, and past and present, are forced to comingle in space and time.

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Titus Kaphar, New Enunciation, 2021, oil on canvas with vinyl, 71 1/2 × 77 1/4 × 2 1/4 inches (181.6 × 196.2 × 5.7 cm). © Titus Kaphar Photo: Rob McKeever

For me, Kaphar felt strongest and most convincing in his three-dimensional works. Cerebral and raw, Doubt solicits an almost ritualistic sort of contemplation and meditation from the viewer. Comparatively, the collage style, flat pieces were generally less affecting. New Enunciation (2021), for instance, features the biblical story of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary to tell her that she is to give birth to Jesus. Kaphar, however, reimagines the scene and instead shows an angel delivering the news to a Black female who stands in front of a broken-down car and hunches over as if working in a field. The background includes a 19th century daguerreotype showing a group of enslaved men and a woman, while a painted Corinthian column adorns the right edge of the canvas. Although Kaphar’s question rings clear—what can be gained by recontextualising our own histories? — his articulation feels, in this instance, a bit blunt and straightforward.

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Titus Kaphar, An Illusion of Progress, 2022, oil on canvas, vinyl, and wood, in enamel frame with velvet 78 1/2 x 65 1/2 x 9 7/16 in (199.4 x 166.4 x 24 cm) ©Titus Kaphar. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

All in all, New Alters is a show worth seeing. The way Kaphar toys with convention and re-envisions the physical potential of the canvas makes for a rousing exhibition. The serious themes at play warrant pause and reflection, and Kaphar’s breathtaking painterly skill emerges powerfully in the few portrait-style works on display, namely Tending Progeny (2021) and An Illusion of Progress (2022). Moving through the galleries, New Alters: Reworking Devotion feels a transformative experience. Bringing troubled pasts to the fore, Kaphar challenges us—the viewers—to reckon with our individual histories, so that we may collectively emerge anew.