WASHINGTON, DC — Titus Kaphar’s art career was born from a bad art history class. During a lecture at the National Portrait Gallery, where his two-person show with Ken Gonzales-Day, Unseen: Our Past in a New Light opened in March of this year, Kaphar recalled the art survey class that inspired his practice. When his professor announced that they would be skipping the chapter on African art, he felt insulted. As the only person of color in the room, Kaphar felt an obligation to politely express his displeasure, which was rebuffed. The experience has motivated him for close to two decades of potent art making.
Kaphar adapts classical painting and sculpture to critique the whiteness of art history and create alternate narratives — not just to remember those left out of the canon, but also to criticize a systemic process of deliberate obfuscation on the part of museums, historians, and institutions. The folded, rolled, cut, and embellished paintings that Kaphar exhibits in Unseen feel oddly prescient here, in Washington, DC. Until recent years, the museum devoted itself mainly to traditional portraiture, featuring grand images of historical leaders and famous Americans with little diversity — in short, white American propaganda.
With the recent addition of official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald at the National Portrait Gallery and a permanent collection in the Smithsonian American Art Museum section that now includes Kerry James Marshall, Jean-Michael Basquiat, Mickalene Thomas, and Mark Bradford, a rush of inclusive energy has arrived. An exhibition like Unseen is the perfect vehicle to continue to push the boundaries of traditional portraiture at NPG through their Portraiture Now series of exhibitions started in 2006 to showcase and encourage contemporary portraiture. Not only does Unseen elevate and promote diverse narratives, starting to remedy a historic homogeneity in portraiture displayed here, it also critiques the role of art museums in the deliberate omission of those other stories.
As Kaphar noted in his lecture: “All depiction is fiction.” When an artist creates an image, the product is never an unbiased or historically impartial account. However, we cannot deny that the grand representation of America’s founding fathers and other wealthy, white historical figures has impacted our nation’s conception of history. Whether we like it or not, the artwork of today becomes the historical record of tomorrow. If the major stumbling block of American history is the negation of the agency of anyone but white men, it is then no surprise that museums, art history courses, and our collective consciousness includes few women and people of color, despite their numerous contributions. It is heartening to see this omission starting to change through the inclusion of works by artists of color at the NPG.
Rather than creating singular portraits, Titus Kaphar problematizes existing art historical — especially propagandistic — images. The best of his works hit like a sucker punch and make you feel history like a phantom limb: an aching, tingling sense of what we have lost, all the omissions of significance from our history books. This lack is felt directly in the work where images are cut apart and portraits are submerged in tar or covered by shroud-like swaths of raw canvas or shredded fabric clusters.
“Behind the Myth of Benevolence” (2014) is the most direct of Kaphar’s works in Unseen. The large painting layers one image over another, with Thomas Jefferson’s face recognizable but partially obscured in an accordion of folding canvas. Like a curtain, Jefferson’s face is drawn to the side to reveal another classical oil painting underneath. A nude black woman meets your gaze with powerful, yet tired eyes. All you can see is her face, shoulder, and knee, and she appears to be exotically portrayed like other “bather” Neoclassical images from Western art, wearing a gold and blue headdress with a serving pitcher in the background.
Kaphar said that this image wasn’t intended to specifically refer to Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, since Hemmings was much lighter-skinned (as the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha) than the model he chose for this piece. However, he did want to point out how unlikely it was that Jefferson fathered children with Hemmings only, that it was a common practice for plantation owners to rape enslaved women.
The idea of “benevolent” slavery, which is becoming more and more common in revisionist white supremacist history, is handily attacked in this piece, which posits Jefferson as a symbol for all white, slave-owning Americans and the anonymous black woman (whose humanity is palpable) for all enslaved people. Jefferson’s self-satisfied smile and proud comportment, his reputation as an enlightened thinker and co-author of the Declaration of Independence, juxtaposed with this mysterious woman is searing, her namelessness next to Jefferson adding to its power. Her lyrically painted figure, similar to an Ingres bather, places her squarely into an art history that deliberately forgot her and transformed Jefferson into a holy deity.
What is most successful about the works in Unseen is how they question specific historical narratives as well as the general practice of portraiture. This double critique can be seen in the twin portraits of Billy Lee and Ona Judge, where each is painted in a classical style but skin and hair are rendered in a lumpy impasto of tar. By using a traditional visual language and showing that it is not a neutral practice, Kaphar extends his ideas to the entire collection at the National Portrait Gallery, infusing historic works with new questions and energy.
Where Kaphar’s narratives focus on African Americans, the other artist featured in Unseen, Ken Gonzales-Day, creates images which center around Native Americans, Asians, and Latinos, that also expose cultural bias and the inadequacy of current historical narratives.
Although it’s described as one exhibition with one title, Unseen functions more like two solo shows, since the work of the two artists are not placed in proximity, but installed in separate, side-by-side galleries. It’s impossible to view them at the same time, which is fine visually, but does not create an opportunity for much cross-pollination to occur.
Theoretically, Kaphar and Gonzales-Day balance out a vital conversation about America’s underrepresented people — each through expertly designed means. However, Kaphar’s images immediately trigger emotions while Gonzales-Day’s require gradual and intellectual processing. Kaphar’s work is a forest fire, while Gonzales-Day’s is a slow burn. In both cases, the work is strong but the timing seems off; the viewer to forced to process each exhibition through exclusive modes that encourage focusing on just one or the other.
In Gonzales-Day’s half of Unseen, elegant, oversized photos feature white classical marble statues, cropped and positioned against black backgrounds. The images subtly offer a commentary on the history of Western art, in contrast with the dominant narratives they were intended to represent. Some feature photos of statues in symbolic poses, like “America,” printed 2017 which depicts the nude female statue from behind, suggesting that she has turned her back on her people or that she has been distracted from her purpose.
Other works depict historic lynching photos, but the artist has Photoshopped the victim’s body out of the scene, leaving just a crowd of white people milling around a tree. The works are understated, and, next to Kaphar, and inside a marble institution, blend in like camouflage rather than demand your attention. In his talk earlier that evening, Gonzales-Day showed images of his photos displayed on giant billboards. Their power in a public environment, especially outside a museum, was immediate proving that context plays an essential role in the impact of his work.
Even from the structure of this essay, it’s obvious that Kaphar’s work is more direct in its message than Gonzales-Day’s, and thus easier to talk about. It can be immediately consumed, satisfyingly Instagrammed, and his images stay with you after you leave. This is in no way a criticism of Gonzalez-Day’s work, but it is an argument for a more careful consideration of curatorial strategy, especially when working with artists of color who specifically engage with an art history that has purposefully left them out.
Although both artists in Unseen critique omissions in the art historical cannon and offer compelling counter narratives, it is not enough to place their work in neighboring museum galleries and call it a show. Each artist here deserves his own title and his own curatorial materials, in order to make sure that each are considered equally and on their own terms. The goal of any two-person show is to enhance the work of artists by placing them in conversation with another artist who can elevate, expand, or challenge their work, but this is not the case here. Differences in the temperament of each could and should have been more carefully considered in order for each artist to benefit from proximity with the other.
As it is, both exhibits are well worth a visit. I suggest coming back more than once in order to allow Gonzalez-Day’s delicate works to slowly unfold within your consciousness after it’s been jogged awake by Kaphar’s dramatic declarations.
UnSeen: Our Past in a New Light, Ken Gonzales-Day and Titus Kaphar is up through January 2019 at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. (8th and F Streets NW). This exhibition continues the National Portrait Gallery’s Portraiture Now series.