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February 7, 2023

For Artist Titus Kaphar the artwork is personal, not politcal — even the overtly political ones

“Painting is dead.”

That’s what professors told artist Titus Kaphar during his time studying art at Yale and finding himself most drawn to painting as a medium.

“I remember one day in a critique,” Kaphar recounted on stage recently during a visit to Ann Arbor for the Penny Stamps Lecture Series, “I remember saying to one of the professors, if painting is dead, then fine, I’m not gonna argue about that with you. But I want to be the person who does the autopsy. Because I wanna figure out how something that’s dead makes me feel so alive when I’m sitting in front of the canvas.”

Kaphar’s unique approach to his paintings is immediately recognizable–he often physically manipulates each piece by slashing or crumpling the canvas, hanging another on top as a second layer to reveal hidden details, or dipping almost the entire thing in tar. He described this process as “torturing” the paintings.

Kaphar’s work Flay (James Madison) has been on display at UMMA since mid-2020. The portrait of the fourth U.S. president has been slashed to ribbons, with the strips of canvas twisted and pinned out to the sides. The painting acts as a centerpiece for Unsettling Histories, an ongoing exhibition in which UMMA curators have rewritten object labels to more honestly reflect the colonial contexts in which each work was created, a gallery intervention inspired by Kaphar who also served as a curatorial consultant on the project.

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