JTF (just the facts): A total of 14 color photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made between 2016 and 2018. Physical sizes are either 32×24, 48×34/51×34, or 75×50 inches, and all of the prints come in editions of 5. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s studio is turning out to be one of the more exciting places in contemporary photographic portraiture. White walls, a few mirrors, a black velvet cloth, and a camera on a tripod form the basis of his experimentation, with the artist himself, and his friends and lovers, taking center stage. But while these simple props and subjects may seem undemanding, Sepuya has proven before (his last New York gallery show was in 2017, reviewed here) that in his hands, they can quickly be multiplied out into a disorienting kaleidoscope of layered imagery.
Rephotography – in the form of paper prints taped to his studio walls which are then aggregated, reflected, and photographed again – has become a signature element of Sepuya’s aesthetic, and many of the images in his last show were anchored by the central, sentinel-like presence of his camera and tripod. This made them feel particularly constructed, the overlapped prints and shard-like flattening of space offering a range of allusive possibilities.
The images in this show slowly move away from that deliberate photographic illusionism, and make the agency issues that underlay portraiture a more central concern. Nearly all the photographs here consider the roles of those in front of and behind the camera, renegotiating the balance between artist and subject. Since all of the participants are actively taking part in both seeing and being seen, any number of hands might end up actually clicking the shutter.
Even the most straightforward portraits in this group of pictures (those where a figure ostensibly stands or sits before the camera) interrogate the typical boundaries of the genre, and create a space where fluidities of race and sexuality can linger. While a velvet backdrop would normally be held in place to provide a completely enveloping environment, in Sepuya’s images, it’s never quite straight, either sagging or off center, revealing the artifice taking place. So when someone sits in front of it, we are momentarily distracted by the floor or wall peeking out from behind, reminding us that we are looking, and that the sitter has chosen to be seen in just this way.
Mirrors take this exchange a step further – in one large image, a woman stands in front of a mirror, so we see her posing, her reflected back, and the artist at work in the background all in one collapsed moment; in another, a man stands in a jock strap with his back to the camera, peeking underneath the velvet cloth, revealing a mirror where he is reflected, so we are looking at him while he is busy looking at himself.
A selection of images then move in tighter, cropping out the surroundings of the studio and forcing us into a more intimate dialogue with the camera lens. It stares directly at us out of the folds of the black velvet, turning the viewer into the subject, and then it sneaks away, leaving us to peer through the hole in the cloth, turning us back into viewers, but now with no apparent object for us to watch.
The camera then returns, but now with multiple operators. The artist’s disembodied hands assist a woman making a self portrait (our position as viewer now replaced by a mirror), while in another image, his attempt to make his own picture is frustrated by the groping hands of a suffocating embrace. Both of these photographs intermingle black and white skin types, creating new layers of formal contrasts and interpersonal dynamics. Queer sexuality comes forth more overtly in images of the nude artist making pictures while sitting behind a kneeling man (his partner’s bare ass pushed back right next to the camera) and while sucking two erect cocks coming in from opposite sides (creating a balanced formal arrangement of arms and cocks). Again, we are caught between the realities of our participatory looking and the mirrored artist looking back at himself, confusing the typical portraiture modes of performance and privacy.
This batch of new pictures is much freer than Sepuya’s past work. He’s let a little of the structural complexity of his photographs move to the background, allowing a more personal and direct interaction with the lens to take place. In that sense, he’s taken more risk, overtly exposing himself rather than distracting our attention with indirect photographic cleverness. But with that vulnerability comes power, and these images feel much more open and present than ever before.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $6300, $9000, or $11000, 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.