The way in which Titus Kaphar paints alludes to American and European art from the 18th and 19th centuries. The classically minded works we see hanging in museums have acted as sources of inspiration and education for artists over generations. Kaphar is no exception to this influence, often using such works as source material for his paintings. Through cutting, breaking, shredding, overlaying, manipulating and appropriating these art historical images, Kaphar draws parallels between canonization and civic agency of the past and present.
In Failed Attempt at Sincerity (2006), a white woman, dressed in a tunic-like dress and mantle, gazes down at a black child and embraces her, perhaps protectively or in a moment of compassion. The stone walls that serve as a backdrop, as well as the subjects' clothing are reminiscent of a biblical scene. This painting could portray an allegorical scene of love, but for Kaphar this is only a superficial narrative. “There are always multiple narratives. I’m asking the viewer to try to piece the whole story together without leaving behind the valuable narrative of, in many cases, those people who have been silenced over years” (T. Kaphar, quoted in video for MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, www.macfound.org).
Kaphar’s addition of a white wash on top of the woman disjoints the seemingly touching moment, and the artist changes the narrative by shifting the viewer’s gaze. Despite the woman being the larger and more imposing figure in the composition, white-washing nearly removes her from the composition and places more focus on the child, providing further indication of the artist’s intent. When one observes the woman, it becomes clear that her eyes are fixed away from the child and her embrace avoids contact. The woman, as the title states, fails at any attempt at sincerity. This point is further revealed by the child’s piercing stare, which acknowledges the truth of racial challenges and false intentions that have prevailed since ancient times.
For Kaphar, the act of washing the woman out of the painting is not supposed to be an erasure, as he acknowledges that “you can’t erase this history.” Rather, Kaphar wants viewers to shift their gaze to the unseen, underrepresented figure on which history and its painters chose not to focus. “I want to create paintings, I want to create sculptures that are honest, that wrestle with the struggles of our past but speak to the diversity and the advances of our present. And we can’t do that by taking an eraser and getting rid of stuff. That’s just not going to work.” Instead, Kaphar's art is not unlike an amendment, an addition that changes a situation while not expunging the original – “…something that says, ‘This is where we were, but this is where we are right now’” (T. Kaphar, “Can art amend history?” TED Talk, August 2017).
Kaphar painted Failed Attempt at Sincerity in the same year he graduated with an MFA from Yale University. The artist has since been exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.; MoMA PS1, New York; Studio Museum in Harlem; and Seattle Art Museum, and will exhibit at MASS MoCA in 2019. Kaphar was a 2018 recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, and his works can be found in such public collections as the Brooklyn Museum; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the Pérez Art Museum, Miami.