Shut Up and Paint: An Interview with Titus Kaphar and Alex Mallis

Shut Up and Paint: An Interview with Titus Kaphar and Alex Mallis
January 4th 2023

Titus Kaphar is one of the most exciting figures in contemporary painting. His powerful and complex works on canvas challenge white supremacist notions of history and representation. By combining technical brilliance with transgressive daring, Kaphar is able to create a depth of ideas and feeling that have found a place in major museums and galleries. As a Black artist, however, his place in the art world is a complicated one. In Kaphar and documentarian Alex Mallis’s new film, Shut Up and Paint (2022), they explore the challenges that come with making uniquely personal work about Black life in America, and its place in the capitalist art market.

Shunning interviews and employing a variety of didactic and expressive narrative modes, Kaphar and Mallis have crafted a formally, philosophically, and emotionally exciting short documentary that poses important questions about who is selling art, who is buying it, and on what terms. Co-directors Kaphar and Mallis, took the time to speak with me about the fear and fun that comes with breaking the rules.

Chris Shields: How did you guys connect?

Titus Kaphar: So I did a talk, and Matt [O’Neill] and Perri [Peltz]—who are producers—were there. And after I got finished they came up to me and said, “Your story is compelling. We'd like to find out more. It'd be cool to do a documentary on you.” And my initial response was like, “Yeah, no thanks. I'm good.” We met up because they were just really nice people and they sort of pitched the idea again. And so my strategy for getting them to say no was, “OK, fine. If you wanna do a doc on me, I get to be a producer and I get to be a director, as well.” And they said, “Great, because we were thinking the exact same thing.” I was like, “Shit, OK.” That did not work. And I think, initially, in their mind, in order to keep this unpredictable artist in line, they were going to put me with Alex as a collaborator. I think Alex was supposed to keep me on the straight and narrow. Little did they know Alex is as unpredictable as I am. And so from the beginning he and I really hit it off, and it was clear that we liked unconventional things and we liked playing with the rules, if not breaking them a little bit.

Alex Mallis: When Titus and I met, we wanted to remove all the restrictions and be as creative as possible. And so when we got together that first time, it was like, “What are the dreams that we have? Let's not think about what we can't do. Let's only think about what we can do.” And I think we did come up with some parameters, like creative jumping off points. And one of them was we wanted to make a film without interviews, and that set us on a certain path. And I remember in that first meeting we got really excited at like, “OK, no interviews. Let's do recreations, let's do reenactments, let's do direct to camera, let's script stuff. Let's really push this form as far as we can.” And I don't think we said it explicitly, but I think we were mirroring some of the three-dimensionality of Titus's work.

CS: The center of the film is the phone call between you, Titus, and an art dealer, and he tells you that you should tone down your activism in interviews and just focus on the painting in order to sell more work. Maybe it's less surprising than it should be, but it's still something where I was taken aback.

TK: I think the truth of the matter is I never expected to be where I am in my career because, as far as painting goes, I didn't know this was a thing. I didn't know that one can make a living from the artwork that they make. The whole time I was in graduate school was really about just being able to teach. So my practice was aimed in a really different direction as far as what was going on in my head. I've come to this point in my practice and realized that there are people who buy artwork because it is meaningful to them. It has an impact on their life; it feels like a philosophical thesis to their life. And so, when someone walks in, they can see some of the things that they believe in and think about on their walls. Then there's a whole other group of people who buy work because it's economically beneficial. And at this level, I'm running into a lot of those folks. And it's disheartening for somebody who makes work that is as personal as the work that I make, about me wrestling through challenges that I'm experiencing—whether that is challenges with trying to teach my sons about American history, or whether that is the racist shit that I deal with on a regular basis. My studio is a place where I wrestle with these things. So when I got that phone call from the guy, it wasn't the first time. But the thing that shocked me was I told him before we started talking, I said, “Look, every time you and I talk, we end up in a very different place. You believe one thing and I believe another thing, so why don't we just record this?” And so when he started saying what you hear in the film, my pause is shock on two sides. Shock number one: I cannot believe you are saying this; I just told you I'm recording this conversation. And then the other part of me is like, “Oh my god, I can't believe I got this on tape,” and excitement.

And so, for me, this film is in some ways a didactic tool. I said I wanted to be a teacher. I started NXTHVN, which is a not-for-profit that works with young artists in helping them understand the business of the art world and all of this shit that they have to deal with. So that particular moment in the film is a didactic opportunity to sit down with the young artists I work with and be like, “This is the kind of shit y'all gotta open your eyes to.”

Shut Up and Paint
Shut Up and Paint (2022)

CS: Alex, as a filmmaker, what was it like learning about a different practice?

AM: I think working on this project broadened my horizons and unstuck a lot of things in my process that had been stuck that I didn't even necessarily realize. And I think it reminded me that the rules of documentary filmmaking are meant to be broken, and should be broken. And the funny thing, I realize, is that when I talk about films that I like, I almost invariably end up thinking about the ones that challenge form and that challenge authorship, that challenge process. And then a lot of the films that I've made over the years, straight as an arrow. And I'm kinda like, “God damn, what is going on here? Why is it the ones I talk about and the ones I think about and respect are one thing, and then the ones I make end up doing this other thing?” And I think it's sort of a fear. It's sort of a lack of confidence to take that risk and to live in that messy space where it's not quite working.

Titus brought a confidence and an energy and a twinkle in his eye that allowed me to release a lot of that baggage that I didn't even realize I had. To approach this thing with an open heart and an open creative mind so that we could try a lot of things that, to be honest with you, didn't work until they worked. A lot of the techniques that we used were messy and confusing and weighing the film down until we pushed them and pulled them and tweaked them, until that final moment when they settled into place and worked. And that precarity that we had to face in order to get there is something that I would not have been able to do on my own, I would not have been able to do without Titus driving and pushing us to get there.

TK: I think that's a really good point, Alex, about them not working until they start working. And it is so much akin to the process of making a painting and that moment when you make that last brush stroke, and all of a sudden it's completely clear that it actually worked. That was an exciting thing to see working with you, seeing all of that come together at the same time. It's really fun.

CS: And that's in the film, too. I feel that richness and that push and pull. There’s always that moment of daring that comes as well, which we do see in the film when you paint Jefferson and then you start painting the white strokes over him. It’s a sort of diving-off moment. I think it's really powerful. Filmmaking has so many moving parts, and you're often trying to “get it right”: “Is this a good take?”, etc. To watch Titus execute a painting of such technical excellence that a small number of people can achieve, and then to take the white paint to it in this transgressive way—it's very liberating and powerful.

AM: One of the things that was surprising for me, but in retrospect is quite obvious, is that, like you said, Titus has the technical skill that is extremely rare. And these paintings, that portrait of Jefferson, he made it. Not like he made a print and then scanned an art book and then he's recreating it. That is inspiring to me, to see this idea of “You gotta know the rules to break 'em.” To climb the tower and then to tear it all down. I mean, how can you not be inspired by that?

CS: I think that’s part of the film’s series of unique dichotomies. Even the title, Shut Up and Paint, has a double meaning, you're being told that by the art dealer: “Don't talk about activism. Don't talk about the realities of Black life in America and its history.” But there’s a moment in the film where you also do have to shut up and paint—that's the only way you can do what you do! What was it like being filmed doing your practice, which you said is so personal to you?

TK: It was initially challenging. This was never a big crew film, so a lot of times it's Alex holding the camera. As our relationship developed, it definitely made it easier to be more comfortable just doing the thing. If it was a larger crew, I don't know that I would be able to do it. But we never had more than three people, so it was a pretty spartan crew.

CS: What about for you, Alex? In a certain sense you're following, finding the right moments, the right movements. It's a really intimate shooting experience to film someone else creating something.

AM: The Jefferson stuff was shot by Ed David, a great DP. And a lot of the documentary stuff was shot by Eric Phillips-Horst, and Emir Fils-Aime, and myself. So there were four of us shooting. And you really have to communicate. There can be a tendency for camera operators and DPs to imagine that they're in some kind of invisible bubble. And so long as they don't interact with the people in front of the camera, the people in front of the camera will not notice them. And, I'm sure as Titus can tell you, that couldn't be further from the truth when you feel this presence. To that end, it's very important to communicate early and often and discuss where the line is, little things: ”How close can I get?”, “What should we do?” In those scenes it was a dance. Titus and, I think, Ed David at that moment were working together to almost execute a choreography. Watching Ed David use his intuition—something you can't teach, something you can't even direct—it's just like, “Ed, do your thing.” And, of course, the same with Titus. Watching these two masters work together was a real treat, and it produced some of the most exciting visuals of the entire piece in my opinion.

TK: Working with Ed was pretty spectacular. I mean obviously, as a painter, I was very picky about the cinematography. That's the thing that you don't have a whole lot of control of in docs sometimes. It's just show up, be there, get the camera running. But with those kinds of scenes where it's like, “Today we're going to shoot you painting,” to be able to work with Ed, who is so creative and compositionally talented; he really knows how to frame an image. For me, as a painter, it was really, really exciting.

CS: Something that I really liked in the film is that someone explicitly asks you why are you interested in doing film now.

TK: I think that's one of the key ideas to the film. I mean, I will paint forever. It is the thing that I love to do. It's a part of who I am. It's the way that I see the world that will never stop. But I went back home to Michigan, where I grew up, and I went back to my old neighborhood, and no one is experiencing my paintings. That's not what's happening there. I have brothers who haven't seen an exhibition of mine, ever. And yet, my TED Talk they've seen dozens of times, and they show it to their friends, and all this other stuff. And it made me realize that the way that film—anything recorded—gets out into the world makes it accessible to people.

I have a painting at the Metropolitan Museum, and I'm incredibly proud of that. But I also recognize that my folks are not going to the Metropolitan. That's just not what we grew up doing. That wasn't a thing that was a part of our consciousness. I'm working on other projects that opened that possibility. But as I make this work that is rooted in my family, in my community, in my history, in my story, and then to realize that so many of those people that I grew up with don't experience it, it just felt like I gotta try something else. Film is incredibly expensive to make, but it is a more democratically accessible medium than painting. And this film poses lots and lots of questions and gets people thinking. And, in some ways, it might leave you with the idea that there are no solutions to these problems. But the reality is I do think that we've come to some solutions. I do think that film, for me, is a kind of solution to one of the challenges I'm dealing with. Obviously there are other issues with film, and who's producing—all these kinds of things that come into play. So yeah, I don't wanna say transition because that implies that I'm leaving one thing and going to another. But that moment in the film speaks directly to what is happening. I'm also working on my first feature film called Exhibiting Forgiveness, which is a film that is more directly related to my personal story

Shut Up and Paint screens tonight, January 4, at DCTV’s Firehouse Cinema. Directors Titus Kaphar and Alex Mallis will be in attendance for a Q&A. Admission is free.