Paul Mpagi Sepuya, D.R.M.P. @Bortolami

JTF (just the facts): A total of 7 color photographic works, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space; 1 additional photograph is framed in brown wood and matted, and hung against a tiled wall in the entry area. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made in 2021. Overall physical sizes (some of the works consist of multiple panels) range from roughly 25×20 to 37×113 inches or the reverse, and no edition information was provided on the checklist. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Over the past decade, Paul Mpagi Sepuya has built an enviable early career in photography. Starting with stepping stone group shows, and soon followed by solo gallery shows (in 2017, reviewed here, and in 2019, reviewed here) and inclusions in museum surveys (like the 2018 New Photography show at MoMA, reviewed here, and the 2019 Whitney Biennial, reviewed here), he has slowly established himself as a contemporary photographic innovator. At a time when many curators and collectors are working hard to find alternate (and previously marginalized) voices to feature, Sepuya’s status as a Black queer photographer actively exploring the nature of desire checks plenty of boxes, but it is the nuanced compositional complexity of his work, and its evolving sense of rethinking the nature of the studio portraiture exchange, that has garnered him so much attention.

After bouncing from gallery to gallery in the last several years, Sepuya has now settled in at Bortolami, cementing the crossover of his photography into the broader realm of contemporary art. This tightly-edited show gathers together works from a recent series “Daylight Studio”, which falls under his larger ongoing project “Dark Room”, which he has been working on for roughly the past five years. The two titles offer a range of possible interpretations and art historical allusions, with dark room evoking both the place where photographs are developed (and perhaps even the space under the cloth of a large format camera) as well as the shadowy rooms of sex clubs, and daylight studio directly recalling the 19th century practice of studio sessions in daylight, albeit now in a 21st century incarnation. The word choice provides a fluid space for re-imagination, particularly in the modes of seeing and being seen, which Sepuya then explores in his setups.

Part of what makes a Sepuya photograph so distinctive is that his works often break down the fourth wall between the artwork and the viewer, drawing us into the layers of looking that are taking place. His camera is often positioned outward, sitting on a tripod and directly facing us, engaging us in an exchange that forces us beyond voyeurism into something more active. He then uses mirrors and rephotographed prints hung on his studio wall to bend the visual exchange back on itself, revealing various perplexing combinations of models, the artist himself, and the contents of his studio. What is visible and what is obscured becomes in some sense uncertain and negotiable, and notions of public and private become confused – it’s often not at all clear (in an elegantly sophisticated way) who is flirting with whom, and who is performing and who is watching.

Several of the works use the structure of a central camera facing a mirror as the organizing principle, with the figures placed behind or beneath the camera; the final image layers the camera and the figures together, with the lens seeming to face directly outward into the gallery space. Fleeting glimpses of desire take shape, with the artist and another model (the artist’s friend and zine collaborator Caleb Kruzel) alternately embracing and intertwined into sculptural masses of anonymous dark and light-skinned bodies, and in a third work, the artist reaching up from behind large velvet floor cushions that hide his body. The images offer evidence of touch,  connection, and presentation, but also leave the circumstances and details pleasingly blocked and open-ended.

Two other images replace the tripod setup with a smartphone camera, which brings an intimate handheld perspective into the mix. In one image, Sepuya takes a photograph of Kruzel as he takes a selfie on his hands and knees, with the artist captured on the screen behind him, creating a nested picture within a picture reversal, and an unexpected reveal of the encounter. In another, Kruzel points his phone at one of the movable mirror walls, while Sepuya captures the scene from the side, anonymizing it but also reorienting the direction of looking, leaving what Kruzel is seeing (and capturing) deliberately unseen.

The rest of the works in the show investigate the space of the studio more fully, using the fronts and backs of the mirrored walls to provide different hidden and visible vantage points. In a brilliantly confounding triptych, the camera is placed in three different locations, and Sepuya’s arm and blurred body reach in and out of the frame, seemingly moving from left to right across the available space; the mirrored walls reorient and double back the gaze of the camera, flattening the setup and the studio behind into one continuous plane, which connects the disconnected visual fragments. It’s nearly impossible to figure out where we as viewers are standing and how the artist’s body parts logically fit together, and the magic of the three-part image lies in that persistent uncertainty. Other works play with this twisting effect in single image and diptych forms, with the mirrors and camera placements similarly confounding our assumptions about space and proportion.

This is a small show and Sepuya’s works tend to reveal themselves slowly (particularly the seemingly empty studios), so it would be easy to slip through the gallery without catching all of the thoughtful nuance in these photographs. But with more time spent, nearly all of these new works offer some sense of inversion or wrong-footing, which requires us to rethink what it is we are seeing, or being shown. The complexity of Sepuya’s evolving vision feels like it is taking him toward the work of Barbara Probst and her precise studies of simultaneity and vantage point, but then the urgency of desire inserts itself into his frames, and the whole calculus of seeing (and portrait making) is pleasingly upended once again. As Sepuya continues to turn the crank on these visual experiments, his artistic momentum is undeniably building.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $5000 and $29000, based on size. Sepuya’s work has not yet reached the secondary markets with any consistency, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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