Los Angeles

Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Figure (0X5A0918), 2019, pigment print, 75 × 50".

Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Figure (0X5A0918), 2019, pigment print, 75 × 50".

Paul Mpagi Sepuya

Paul Mpagi Sepuya makes images that coyly invite close looking. In what are essentially studio portraits, Sepuya photographs his subjects—himself, his friends, and his cameras—in mirror reflections that are often doubly echoed on the luminescent screens of iPhones held aloft. The intricate relay of signifying surfaces in Sepuya’s photos may bring to mind Foucault’s essay on Velázquez’s 1656 painting Las Meninas. Explaining the viewer’s relationship to the painting’s ambiguous subject, the theorist writes that the painting contains “a whole complex network of uncertainties, exchanges, and feints,” that “subject and object . . . reverse their roles to infinity.” The result of all of this? “Representation undertakes to represent itself.” Foucault’s explication, first published in 1966, would also come to be an apt description of the postmodernist photography that emerged in the following decade. Sepuya’s photos are inextricable from this lineage of self-conscious representation about representation, but, importantly, they also expand the concerns of that discourse by attending to the materiality of the bodies that are imaged.

In Figure (0X5A0918), 2019, two nude black men balance improvisationally on a wooden bench with their bodies pressed together, chest to chest. The figure facing out (Sepuya himself) wraps one hand around the back of his companion and uses the other to hold up a camera that obscures his own face but points directly out at the observer. The figure seen from behind raises an iPhone in selfie mode that offers a snippet of the upper-right corner of his face and a wider angle on the scene. The screen confirms the mechanics of the shot—you can see the entirety of the mirror at which both cameras are pointed. Visually complex though the twelve works on view may have been, Sepuya does go out of his way to show his audience how the pictures were made, to embed the process in the final project. This emphasis on process was also reflected in the title of the show, “A conversation about around pictures.”

Sepuya’s self-conscious illustration of the production process calls to mind Jeff Wall’s 1979 Picture for Women, which also uses a mirror to reveal the studio setting, the camera, and the typically hidden hierarchies of power that structure an image’s making. By including himself in the picture, Wall acknowledges critiques of the male artist’s gaze. Sepuya’s photos, however, open up a different conversation about power and representation, one that necessarily has different concerns in relation to queerness and race. In Sepuya’s picture, the photographic subject is a participant, showing himself via iPhone at the same time that the artist photographs him. (In another photograph, titled Model Study (0X5A4029), 2017, the odalisque also images himself—imagine the subject of Ingres’s Valpinçon Bather, 1808, taking a selfie). Sepuya is unclothed and entwined with his subject, divulging his own desires in the act of imagemaking.

The cool, analytical postmodern tradition has been shot through with the warmth of naked bodies touching. Sepuya doesn’t simply include the camera in the image but rests it tenderly in the crook of his subject’s neck. He doesn’t just show the artist’s hand but places it gingerly on his subject’s back. The images allow the viewer to take pleasure in the surface as well as to look for meaning below it. The photograph’s soft lines and the visible smudging on the mirror add an almost paint-erly texture to a photographic print.

In Sepuya’s images, a discourse about representation meets a discourse about embodiment. The photographs are queer not only because of the bodies that inhabit them, but because Sepuya’s combinations embrace a variety of meanings. Concept need not be divorced from feeling.