The current exhibit of Titus Kaphar’s works at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, titled “The Vesper Project,” surveys history, heredity, race, architecture, and just plain old visual art, intermingling parody, autobiography, destruction, and reinvention into a chiaroscuro carnival of unearthly but somehow palpably earthbound delights. All of Kaphar’s brilliant artistic/literary amalgamations and tricks manage to tear away pieces of your perception, the way a tsunami takes down buildings and bridges, leaving behind a messy mass of twisted roots shaped into meaning you barely understand but absolutely feel.
In a media- and social-media- drenched world of constant updates and scandals and comments, a visual-art tsunami is nothing less than a miracle, and Kaphar accomplishes such bad weather through a strict adherence to his own sense of outrage and elegance. In his suite of portraits of prisoners titled “The Jerome Project,” he creates a process that is born from his need to know who his father was. Kaphar’s dad, a criminal who abandoned the family when Kaphar was very young, is named Jerome. Investigating his father’s criminal records, Kaphar came across a large number of men named “Jerome,” so he began painting portraits of each, and then dripping these portraits into tar. In an extension of that process, titled “Asphalt & Chalk,” he layers the tar with chalk outlines of each of the men, conflating chalk-outlines at crime-scenes with a delicate ghostly pentimento.
All of this dead-on, obsessive playfulness is devastating and yet also so tucked into itself you feel distanced from the subject matter just enough to understand how cheap it is to be sentimental about it (by bradley). You just take it in. That’s Kaphar’s main trick and triumph, draining monolithic power-plays concerning “blackness” and “maleness” of all their glitter and pomp, and creating a new and sobering space not to reflect or act, but just to hear voices you can’t hear, above the drone and patter of news cycles and chants and poses.
That’s a lot of work to do, and Kaphar’s complete and enraptured dedication to his project is something to behold. The centerpiece of the show at the CAC, from which the whole exhibit gets its name, is an installed environment fashioned from Kaphar’s fever-dream imagination, boiling together William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Oscar Wilde, and Edward Keinholz into a pointedly theatrical narrative concerning history, insanity, and the propensity for memory to turn itself into myth, as well as the accompanying need and final determination to rip all of it to mother-fucking shreds.
Installed in the relatively small space at the CAC are whole remnants of a house, painstakingly reconstructed but also messed with in ways that reveal it’s not war or even desolation Kaphar is referencing and/or poeticizing, it’s the dream of war and desolation trapped inside themselves, flooding out in painful rivulets of rot, wood, and rope.
“Power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategic situation in a particular society,” writes Michel Foucault in The History of Sexuality. Kaphar seems to agree; he is constantly in search of how power, once unleashed from its happy home, actually operates and functions in culture: an obfuscation that hinders insight, obscuring the very nature of its birth so it can continue to grow and prosper in the same way century after century. By twisting wood into amnesia, by repelling ghosts and ripping apart history page by page, painting by painting, Kaphar employs a brand new strategy with which to counteract a power narrative we’re always stuck with, and yet never agree on how to critique. He destroys and then captures that destruction in a furious moment of insight, focusing on the vacuum caused by power’s relentless hunger for what is always ahead.