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Titus Kaphar Amends History

 

“I want to make paintings…I want to make sculptures that are honest, that wrestle with the struggles of our past but speak to the diversity and the advances of our present.” – Titus Kaphar

 

 

The Cost of Removal (2017) is a new acquisition in the Crystal Bridges permanent collection and is on view in the 1940s to Now Gallery as of today. The artist, Titus Kaphar, is a renowned painter and sculptor who uses his art as a means to shift our viewpoint on traditional representations of marginalized people throughout history.

 

Titus Kaphar was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1976. He serendipitously registered for an art history course in the 90s and went on to complete an MFA from Yale University in 2006. Since then he has met the complexities of the past head-on, both formally and conceptually by drawing attention to how visual depictions of history can privilege some while concealing others.

 

The Cost of Removal not only weighs the impact of generational oppression, but the inherent loss in attempting to erase the realities of history. There is a current debate circulating the nation as to whether or not public confederate monuments should be torn down or kept. Kaphar believes that it is possible to think beyond this “one or the other” method of problem solving in order to explore the nuances within the development of history. In his viewcan be amended in a way similar to that of the United States Constitution; by readdressing outdated procedures and values, the American people can continue to assert their values through the engagement of contemporary artists to create art that responds and confronts these public sculptures. In no way does the art “fix” a problematic past, but it can spark dialogue between those who will create the future.

 

Titus Kaphar, b. 1976 The Cost of Removal, 2017, Oil, canvas, and rusted nails on canvas. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas

Titus Kaphar, b. 1976
The Cost of Removal, 2017, Oil, canvas, and rusted nails on canvas. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas

 

Kaphar does well to question the ability of an image to “speak the truth” or remain valid over the course of time, as societal values shift. His employment of techniques, styles, and compositional structures reminiscent of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century artists directly recalls accepted standards within visual culture at the time and how such standards lack a connection to the ethics of contemporary American life.

 

The Cost of Removal showcases these layered complexities in several ways. Kaphar based the composition on an 1833 painting of Andrew Jackson by Ralph Earl, seen here.

 

Andrew Jackson on Sam Patch, oil painting by Ralph Earl, c. 1833. Image courtesy of Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage

Andrew Jackson on Sam Patch, oil painting by Ralph Earl, c. 1833.
Image courtesy of Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage

 

 

Kaphar sampled aspects from this painting in his rendering and then attached pieces of torn canvas with rusted nails in order to expose the hidden context of Andrew Jackson’s social and political standing, which was elevated through the oppression of thousands of Native people. Each aspect of the work is a visual cue into history. The nails reference an African ritual of hammering nails into objects of adoration or spiritual significance. Each nail represents an individual that has put their faith into the object in question. The torn pieces of canvas are strips containing Andrew Jackson’s own words as he considers displacing Native Americans from their land. Jackson ended up signing the 1831 Indian Removal Act, which led to the forced relocation of Native people into Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) west of the Mississippi River. The route that these 15- to 16,000 Indigenous people forcibly traversed—called the Trail of Tears—is about 2,200 miles long and resulted in the death of an estimated three to four thousand people.

 

This acquisition looks to the collection’s earlier works of picturesque representations of our nation’s past and leaders, along with the sometimes violent realities of this history. Kaphar’s work simply makes visible that which art history has largely hidden: the fact that depictions of white supremacy are deeply embedded into our nation’s visual history. By engaging contemporary art as a means of starting a dialogue between the past and the present, we can begin to confront our history in order to move forward into a more just future.

 

To learn more about Titus Kaphar’s work and philosophy, follow the link here to watch his recent Ted Talk, “Can art amend history?”.

 

Titus Kaphar

Titus Kaphar

 

 

 

 

 

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