Executed in 2010, Fidelity is a powerful and timely painting by Titus Kaphar: an artist whose incisive, urgent practice radically reimagines the history of representation in Western art. The present work is based on a painting by the famous 18th-century portraitist Thomas Gainsborough, which once hung in Number 10 Downing Street. In the original, the landowner Colonel John Bullock poses in full frock-coated regalia, leaning on a neoclassical urn with his faithful dog by his side. In his version, Kaphar mummifies the figure of the colonel in wrappings of raw canvas, leaving him as a mysterious, swaddled outline in the setting of the English country garden. In doing so, Kaphar shifts our focus from Gainsborough’s human subject to the symbolic trappings of power and status that the image was designed to project: the lush, ornamental background of trees and water; the urn, which literally props up the colonel as an expression of commitment to solid classical ideals; the dog, whose faithful gaze is meant to indicate his master’s noble character. Indeed, the dog is emphasised in the title of Fidelity, which touches on a central concern of Kaphar’s practice: what does it mean to be faithful to history, when so much of that history was written by the powerful? Can the narratives of the past be understood and re-envisioned for the present, rather than blindly accepted for what they are?
‘The picture, the world that is represented in the history of paintings doesn’t reflect me’, says Kaphar, who is African-American. ‘It doesn’t reflect the things that I value in that way. And that’s the conflict that I struggle with so frequently, is I love the technique of these paintings, I have learned from the technique of these paintings, and yet I know that they have no concern for me’ (T. Kaphar, ‘Can beauty open our hearts to difficult conversations?’, TED Talk, June 2020). The visual language of paintings like Gainsborough’s was designed to elevate subjects like Bullock: typically white, wealthy members of the ruling classes. By replicating and disrupting such images – aside from wrapping them in canvas, he has also sliced out sitters to leave negative spaces, and, onstage in a celebrated 2017 TED Talk, whited out a family painted by Frans Hals to draw attention to their anonymous black servant – Kaphar creates beautiful, provocative works that open up conversations about the past, present and future of Western art.
Kaphar takes the same nuanced approach to the recent debate over Confederate monuments in the United States: rather than simply being torn down or left standing as they are, he believes these objects can be amended, adapted, and engaged with critically. ‘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’, he says. ‘And we can’t do that by taking an eraser and getting rid of stuff. That’s just not going to work. I think that we should do it in the same way the American Constitution works. When we have a situation where we want to change a law in the American Constitution, we don’t erase the other one. Alongside that is an amendment, something that says, “This is where we were, but this is where we are right now.” I figure if we can do that, then that will help us understand a little bit about where we’re going’ (T. Kaphar, ‘Can Art Amend History?’, TED Talk, April 2017).
This sense of ‘amending’ art history as a way forward – not wiping the slate clean to start over, but acknowledging and untangling its problems – is elegantly enacted in Fidelity. In cocooning Gainsborough’s sitter, Kaphar creates an arresting hybrid of sculpture and painting that highlights its own materiality: each scrap of raw canvas is the fabric for a latent painting, and, not unlike the buildings and objects ‘wrapped’ by the artist duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude, activates the space within as a site for imagination and potential. A moribund picture of privilege becomes a chrysalis ready to burst into something new. With his works now in the collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Yale University Art Gallery, and having painted a powerful cover for Time magazine in response to this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, Kaphar is taking his own place in art history. Pulling back the veil of tradition, he illuminates the possibility that painting, when seen clearly, might not merely enshrine the past but also offer a platform for positive change.