The sinuous nature of desire + alternative ways of seeing with Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s photographic explorations of queer presence

, 31 October 2017

Los Angeles-based photographer Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s work is part of a common plea for a sincere regard of feeling and sensuality as tools for photographic inquiry. Touch and distance are presented as requisite foundations for understanding, linking and retooling elided epistemologies in regard to the Team (bungalow) show Dark Room and current New Museum group exhibition Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon. Referencing homoerotic photography, carefully situated images of ephemeral material, fragmented bodies, torsos and sensuous hand gestures – some comprising of Sepuya himself and or other subjects – within his studio space proposes an unregulated and recomposed capacity for others to feel interior sentiment through transference.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya, ‘Darkroom (1990407)’ (2016). Detail. Courtesy the artist, Yancey Richardson, Team Gallery + Document Gallery, Chicago

These seemingly irrational vantage points have received little attention in recent years, in favor of machinic discussions of surveillance and archive. In effect, technical omission of non-normative knowledge undervalues its indexation as categorically necessary and ineffaceable. This necessarily begs the question: If photography demonstrates itself to be concerned with the embodied subject by way of representation, what then does it mean to articulate and represent the fissures of cognition, thereby substantiating the possible dimensions of subjectivity against the backdrop of the image? Corresponding with Sepuya via email, he unpacks these concerns and provides further insight into his detailed practice.

Whether it’s images of himself, gay male friends, acquaintances, and or studio detritus, Sepuya’s photographs are less containers for immediate experience and more so relational spaces to capture, disrupt and recontextualize the sinuous nature of desire. In this respect, a constant interchange takes place about the constitution and organization of senses that undergo processes of movement with respect to the viewer’s gaze. On the one hand, the shifting of sensual registers points to the question proposed by scholar Dana Seitler, how do we define queerness within aesthetics? Sepuya does not seek to provide a definitive answer, instead, opting to use photography as an analytical mechanism for the purpose of structuring the terms and conditions of these key, insightful propositions. For the artist, “photography is a dialogue,” predicated on centering haptic visuality and experience as immanent parameters foregrounding queer presence, thus mobilizing alternative ways of seeing.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Dark Room (2017). Exhibition view. Courtesy the artist + Team Gallery, New York.

Through the careful choreography of photographer, camera and eye, sensuality and immediacy are activated within the confessional realm of portraiture — a domain represented and negotiated via surfaces. These surfaces intrinsically exist in parallel with the historical logistics of the body and knowledge production. In the pieces ‘Self Portrait Study with Roses at Night,’ 2016 and ‘Figure With Poppies After RBN (2604),’ 2015, a cutout print of a body, respectively positioned behind and in front a camera tripod within the plane of the studio and ephemera — consisting of rephotographed prints, torn paper, and drawings — appears alongside the camera and tripod. ‘Study for B.H. with Five Figures, (0607),’ 2014/2015 and ‘Study For An Exchange JO with four Figures,’ 2015 continue this compositional framework, although in these works Sepuya’s body is absent, and is instead figuratively noted by the camera’s tripod. These pieces, which make up the project Figures, Ground, and Studies (exhibited earlier this year at New York’s Yancey Richardson Gallery) contend with the “largely desexualized 20th-century histories of photography’s 19th-century invention” and disregard of sensuality. Sepuya’s aim is to connect these historically contingent zones- the studio, body, and photography in-itself- as a way of structuring the boundaries of an insurgent proposal: feeling through photography and others. What is produced, then, is an undertaking for careful contemplation and magnification of the interstices of surfaces — somatic or otherwise — as lenses into interiority that is socially located at the intersection of race, gender and sexuality.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya, ‘Darkroom Mirror (0X5A1802)’ (2017). Install view. Courtesy the artist + Yancey Richardson.

Prioritizing touch in all aspects of his meticulous process, Sepuya’s photographs do not undergo extensive digital manipulation. His studio practice is predicated on people and the physical handling of  materials within the image taking precedence. Additionally, according to Sepuya, the ubiquitous use of dark-brown walnut frames relays a transfigured continuation of his touch and body. Through this speculative frame, Sepuya is interested in ways of building frameworks that connect his method to a particular place in photo historically, ideally, “from the first sight to the approach and close investigation” of his work.

Sepuya humbly admits to never having had the “career of a photographer,” in spite of his recent collaboration with British fashion designer Grace Wales Bonner and inclusion in several national and international group and solo exhibitions within the last decade. That’s possibly why he approaches photography much in the same way he does his subjects and conceptual trajectories: as an ongoing process of learning and unlearning. Structural and theoretical cues are taken from the likes of eminent artists like Catherine Opie and Mary Kelly, and others. In fact, when asked about what references the stock of images — or the purposefully engendered queer image-repertoire — he hopes to initiate through his work, he points to transgressive fashion photographers David LaChapelle and Bruce Weber’s respective contributions to 90s covers of Interview Magazine. He also cites “online image boards and chatrooms, early websites and pre-google searches that lumped anything ‘gay’ together, whether it be fine art, soft or hard-core porn, fashion advertisements, and amateur takes on all and everything in-between” as an influence. These reference points coalesce to form constituents in a political economy of sensation that Sepuya reflexively and fluidly mediates, obliging the viewer to consider their inherent complicity in the realities of the presented images.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya, ‘Dark Cloth (_2010616)’ (2016). Install view. Courtesy the artist + Team Gallery, New York.

In his ongoing series Mirror Studies and Dark Room, the mirror’s surface and the space of the dark room function as sites for processing, reevaluating and visualizing those necessary terms and conditions of possible queer interiority and networked collective of sensations. Traces of haptic activity are represented in the pieces ‘Darkroom Mirror (0X5A1531)’ and ‘Darkroom Mirror (0X5A1802)’ — both 2017 — which feature smudges on the refractive surface, fragmented bodies and a camera, positioned in front of a dark, rumpled velvet cloth. The disjunct figures represented in Sepuya’s mirror studies and dark room projects, collapsed into a single viewing plane, serve as articulations for the impossibility of capturing the full constitutions of being, as well as the liminal spaces of precognitive subjectivity that outwit direct expression. For the Team (bungalow) show and presentation in the New Museum group exhibition Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon, Sepuya’s goal is to move away from straightforward portraiture and invite the viewer into a space that is “visually dark”; choosing to critically engage the senses of the viewer (here as the amorous subject) and invite them into “the space beneath the photographer’s dark cloth: the space of the homoerotic and queer sex dark room.”

Paul Mpagi Sepuya, ‘Figure Ground Study’ (2016). Detail. Courtesy the artist, Yancey Richardson + Document Gallery, Chicago.

Along these lines of inquiry, the use of drapery is not to be taken as an act of concealment in works such as ‘Dark Cloth (_2010616)’, 2017; ‘Darkroom (1990407)’, 2016; and ‘Darkroom (_1980970),’ 2016. Rather, drapery here highlights “the world of the larger studio” and the liminal spaces within the studio, created through fragmentation, that often resist perceptibility. “Nothing is hidden…There is the the ‘dark room’ spaces, created within the drapes of the black and brown velvet… that space created is a world in its own, and only its darkness, or the black of the camera body and tripod, or my own body, can throw into view the latent traces on the mirror’s surface,” asserts Sepuya. The tableaux of images demonstrate contingent worlds waiting and yearning to be revealed through perceptive and radical engagement. Because, indeed, as Susan Sontag poetically states in On Photography: “To collect photographs is to collect the world.”’ **

Paul Sepuya’s Dark Room was on at Los Angeles’ Team Gallery, running September 17 to October 22, 2017.