Paul Mpagi Sepuya: Figures, Grounds and Studies @Yancey Richardson

JTF (just the facts): A total of 19 color photographs, framed in light/dark wood and matted/unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the smaller side room. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made between 2009 and 2016. Physical sizes range from roughly 13×9 to 51×34, and all of the prints are available in editions of 5. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: For many contemporary photographers, the confines of the artist’s studio have become a rich playground for innovation, where complex setups, elaborate performances, and meticulous sculptural constructions can take shape in a controlled environment. And for most, the physical organization of that playground is relatively straightforward – all of the action (in its many diverse forms) takes place in front of the camera – the camera is effectively “back here” out of view and the subject of the photograph is “over there”.

But for Paul Mpagi Sepuya, the spatial relationships of his ordinary white walled studio take on a much more fluid and three dimensional quality. In his pictures, the recurring scene that represents his artistic sandbox is anchored by the crisp presence of the black, three legged form of his camera on its tripod. Behind his camera lies the flat blank wall of the studio, upon which Sepuya often tapes or tacks pictures or fragments of pictures, just like countless artists do with their own inspirational hallmarks and discoveries. The first twist lies in the fact that his compositions show us all of this, and so what must sit in front of the camera is not the “subject” exactly but a large mirror, which reflects the spatial reality of the camera, its surroundings, and often the artist himself. And then Sepuya further complicates matters by inserting ingenious double, triple, and quadruple cross spatial trickery – physical pictures that are taped to the mirror (which are then captured as “in front of” the camera and the scene behind it), doubled body parts that are seen in both the space of the studio and the mirror, and hanging drapery curtains (and paper photographs of those same curtains) that intermittently interrupt the layers of collapsed reflective looking.

So between the mirror, the camera, the drapery, and the back wall, Sepuya has a space separated into four intermediate zones, into which he can insert himself, his models/friends, and various other objects (yellow lemons, red poppies, a wooden box), including rephotographed (paper) imagery of that very same space. The setup is so imaginative that he doesn’t need digital trickery to create plenty of depth perception illusions and confusion – his is an old school analog world, where the careful definition of the conceptual construct creates the conditions for magic.

That Sepuya is African American, and gay, and interested in probing the inner workings of desire (in a variety of skin colors), and that he has taken the risk of placing these personal issues into his spatial blender, is what gives these pictures their authentic brainy friction – without these intimate expressions and confessions, such intricate spatial machinations might feel just a bit too cool and crafty. Instead, Sepuya uses his deliberate dislocations and inversions to create metaphorical scenes of elusive personal connection, where body parts and impulses never quite coalesce. Even when we get “behind the curtain”, the pieces still don’t fit together neatly.

Sepuya’s Mirror Study works create the most puzzling combinations of impossible space. In a self portrait, the artist appears to be sitting near the camera, only until we look closer and see that it is a torn paper print of the artist affixed to the mirror, with the artist’s real arm bending around to trigger the shutter. In another strong work, two triangular images in black and white (with body parts partially reflected in mirrors of their own) are held against the mirror by the artist’s own hands, creating doubled arm reflections that further confuse the space. And in a third, the drapery is shown in black and white and color, both as paper prints in different layers of space, with the artist’s elbow and hand dangling around the edges. In each case, the obstructions and rephotographed textures generate richly thoughtful photographic illusions, where foreground and background jostle for dominance.

The works on view in the smaller side room are more like still lifes in their overall architecture, even though they still revolve around portraiture and figures. These works have more complexity in their arrangement, with smaller component images (placed both on the studio wall and on the mirror) working together to create composite visual experiences. There is a bit more narrative in these works, with images of hands referencing each other, like images echoing across the frame, or slices of a prone body trying (in vain) to come together as one unit. As portraits, they signal a sense of incomplete information, where personalities are partially assembled through a selection of fleeting moments and memories.

In the end, Sepuya’s experiments with studio portraiture feel fresh and original, especially given the nuances of race and sexual orientation that percolate through their construction. Their visual complexities openly engage and include us as viewers, and their mirrored illusions force us into a intimate exchange that often includes both the artist and his models. That interplay feels more layered and vibrant than the usual two-way viewer/sitter structure, effectively bringing us inside the studio, to be enveloped by the artistic process.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $3000 to $9500 based on size. Sepuya’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail like remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Poursuite Editions (here). Softcover, 21 x 29 cm, 144 pages, with 107 black-and-white and color reproductions. Includes an essay by Clément Ghys ... Read on.

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