Titus Kaphar, The Vesper Project (detail), 2008–13, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view.

Titus Kaphar, The Vesper Project (detail), 2008–13, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view.

Titus Kaphar

Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati

Titus Kaphar, The Vesper Project (detail), 2008–13, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view.

The story goes that, while looking at a portrait by Titus Kaphar hanging in the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, a man named Benjamin Vesper suffered a sudden psychotic break and attacked the painting. The man was hospitalized but later escaped, and was eventually found squatting in an abandoned nineteenth-century house that he insisted belonged to his family. The history goes that the ancestral Vespers were a well-to-do, mixed-race family living in Reconstruction-era Connecticut. Their light skin allowed them to “pass” as white until an unplanned pregnancy thwarted the proposed marriage between a Vesper daughter and the son of a wealthy white shipping magnate, ultimately exposing the Vesper family’s racial secret and hurtling them into financial and social ruin. Nineteenth-century America’s convoluted legislation banning interracial marriage often deferred to the so-called one-drop rule, which recognized all persons with even negligibly distant African ancestry as legally Negro. In the uncertain space where story and history converge, disrupt, and distort each other, Titus Kaphar’s The Vesper Project, 2008–13, takes form. The artist’s creative authorship versus the historical facticity of the show’s backstory is left intentionally opaque in the work’s presentation and in Kaphar’s commentary. Here, a haphazard structure of wood lathing and broken furniture crammed with objects and detritus ostensibly taken from the blighted Vesper house is installed in the third-floor gallery of the Contemporary Arts Center (in a show of Kaphar’s work that remains on view through October 11). The structure, fastidiously and compulsively arranged, yet barely holding together as a stable unit, is flanked by Kaphar’s dreamlike photographs and historical paintings modified via techniques of obfuscation including burning, cutting, whitewashing, and dipping in tar (all staples of the artist’s larger painting oeuvre). As a whole, the installation reads like a gigantic talisman of domestic and psychic volatility: a precarious interior architecture choked by the pieces nailed, ripped, bound, and dangled from its extremities.

Kaphar’s ongoing confrontations with the fungible terrains of history and memory are rendered in a high-pitched spatial reconstruction of what “losing it,” in the artist’s words, might look and feel like. The claustrophobic density of the work, which is as obsessively manipulated as it is out of control, is punctuated throughout by slivers of open air, light, and empty space within the structure. These disruptions force the viewer to question whether he is confronting a resolved image or merely a hallucination. Evenly spaced hangings, well-established sight lines, and the pervading logic and clarity of the surrounding architecture all play purposefully against the central pandemonium of the work’s ephemeral atmosphere.

This installation of The Vesper Project also marks the first time it has been exhibited alongside The Jerome Project, 2011–, another multistage undertaking, which Kaphar debuted at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2011. “Asphalt and Chalk,” 2014–, the portion of the project here on view, is a series of large-scale chalk portraits on black asphalt paper. Spare white contour lines form schematic but charged images of faces overlain atop one another, creating a multiple-exposure effect that precludes the possibility of knowing exactly “whom” one is looking at. Researching his father’s prison records, Kaphar came across a striking number of mugshots of men who shared the elder Kaphar’s name, Jerome. This personal face-off with the disorienting archives of the criminal-justice system inspired the project, in which portraits of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and other publicly recognized victims of police violence are incorporated into the field of semi-anonymous Jeromes that forms the series’ base. Kaphar’s retracing of the material evidence of individuals in the public record produces a kind of anti-archive of precarious persons, a collection of composites that speaks to the simultaneous hypervisibility and invisibility of black men in America. Kaphar commandeers the procedures and materials of investigative police work: collections of mug shots, outlines in chalk, bare asphalt as ground. The Vesper and Jerome projects, which repurpose the material leavings of narratives historically marked as criminal or deviant to punch holes in the logics of recorded history, cumulatively raise timely and essential questions about the basic frameworks of truth and experience.

Brynn Hatton