Titus Kaphar's Time Magazine Commission

The Commission, Like His Other Work, Stems From A Strong Political Conscience

Juliette Harris

Time Magazine commission: Titus Kaphar, Yet Another Fight for Remembrance, oil, 5 x 4 ft.With a timely magazine commission and an installation at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Titus Kaphar currently is receiving high visibility for his work related to policing and incaration in this country.

TIME commissioned Kaphar to portray the Ferguson protestors who, collectively, were chosen as one of four runners-up for TIME's 2014 Person of the Year.  (The Ebola fighters were named the collective person of the year because of the risks they took and sacrifices they made to save lives.)

“Like so many others, I’ve been struggling with what to do in response to what is happening in Ferguson and throughout the rest of this country,” Kaphar told the Time staff. “Over the last few years I’ve found myself immersed in criminal justice research. I’ve been trying to make paintings that speak to the gravity of the situation. Honestly, it feels beyond me. What I make ends up feeling more like catharsis than communication.”

In Time's video of the work in progress,  Kaphar wears a hoodie with hood pulled up over his head and the Travon Martin symbolism of this aspect of his appearance will not be lost on most viewers, even though Kaphar probably didn't intend to signify this when he donned his work garb. Or maybe he did.  A message that he sent to friends and associates reveals his concerns about the policing issue becoming yet another cause celebre that gets lost in a perspectual news cycle:

Several weeks ago an art director from Time Magazine stumbled into my exhibition “The Jerome Project” at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Soon after, he contacted me about making a piece that addressed what has been happening in Ferguson and New York and the rest of the country as it relates to the relationship between African American communities and the police. I had already made a few pieces about the subject, so although I make it a rule to avoid most commission proposals, I decided that I would give it a try. I wanted to make something that didn’t feel like an illustration of an idea but an expression of a feeling. The feeling that even after the ink dries from the printing of the magazine, I know that many will feel permission to forget what’s written on those pages. The very nature of our media cycle erases the gravity and the impact of a situation as it becomes just another short lived flash across our screens. When I finished the piece it didn’t feel like anything I could imagine in Time Magazine. I was satisfied with it. For me this piece was never simply about Ferguson. That’s how it was editorialized, but this is the reality in Oakland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, and hundreds of other cities around the country.

View a video of the work in progress on the TIME webpage.

Kaphar is most well-known for his paintings and mixed media works based on historical conventions of European art.  He departs markedly but not entirely from this signature style for the Jerome Project, on view Nov 13, 2014 - Mar 8, 2015 at the Studio Museum of Harlem. The project began  Titus Kaphar Jerome II, 2014 Oil, gold leaf and tar on wood panel 4-ft by 5-ft ©Titus Kaphar Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York with Kaphar's search for his father's prison records, as the exhibition announcement explains:

When he visited a website containing photographs of people who have recently been arrested, he found dozens of men who shared his father’s first name, Jerome, and last name. The artist was influenced by the writings of Michelle Alexander and William Julius Wilson on the prison-industrial complex and the use of policing and imprisonment by the US government as a means to address economic, social and political problems. The panels are based on police portraits of the men named Jerome that Kaphar found online, which represent only a portion of each man’s identity yet are preserved in the public record.

Initially Kaphar covered the bottom portion of the paintings with tar to represent the percentage of time the men were imprisoned.  This intent was abandoned, then resumed to make a statement about the consequences of imprisonment and the shortcomings of the criminal justice system.

Kaphar reconnects with traditions of classical painting for the Jerome Project via the gold-leaf backgrounds and single central figures in the project which have a visual parallel to Byzantine holy portraits, specifically those depicting Saint Jerome, the patron saint of librarians and scholars.  See more here.

Installation view of Titus Kaphar's Behind A Veil of Beauty exhibition, SEM-Art Gallery, Monaco. Photo: courtesy the galleryTitus Kaphar manages to explore a broad range of styles and media while maintaining a common denominator thoughout.  For example, the whited-out figures in his Ferguson-themed commission for TIME recall the white cut-outs prevalent in his classical, European-styled works such as those in his 2012 Behind A Veil exhibition at the SEM-Art Gallery in Monaco.  Reviewing this show for the IRAAA, Ashleigh Coren asked Kaphar about the meaning of the cut-outs.  

The cut-outs prod viewers to "consider not just the work that is in front of them but the work that is referenced," he replied.  He also said he he uses his paintings to "make a physical representation about an argument" about racially insensitive and misogynist imagery within the Western art tradition.