At Mass MoCA, Titus Kaphar leads us back from the abyss

January 10, 2019 • Murray Whyte

NORTH ADAMS — Near the bottom of a big industrial stairwell at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, an apparition rises in ghostly defiance, a pale spectre etched on glass. Behind her a dark pit yaws, its contours riven like the topographical map of a deep, unknowable valley.

It makes for a jarring encounter, off to the side of a long-standing show of dryly angular Sol Lewitt sculptures and down a corridor from the playful forms of Louise Bourgeois. This is a plainspoken, forthright work; the abyss at the woman’s back seems dying to swallow her, but she’s having none of it. In fact, she’s only just barely escaped its gravitational pull.

History can be like that — carefully carved to be full of dark corners, designed from the first to absorb all attempts at illumination. For Titus Kaphar, who made this work, those very shadows are begging for the floodlights.

Step back, until that black hole starts to fall into the familiar form of Thomas Jefferson, captured in profile. You wouldn’t be wrong to suddenly see in that ghostly figure Jefferson’s slave and longtime lover Sally Hemings, who bore him children, their lineage kept secret for centuries. And while that’s part of it, it’s not so simple. How many Hemingses has history kept shrouded in darkness? What are the secrets kept by the powerful at the expense of the powerless, their strategic omissions, their lies?

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