Paul Mpagi Sepuya at the Blaffer Art Museum

November 24th, 2019  |  Published in *, November 2019

“Yes, I understand these,” I might have said to myself on my first encounter with Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s photographs at Houston’s Blaffer Art Museum. In the Los Angeles photographer’s first major museum survey, arriving from the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis, fragments of figures bend and tangle against cool walls and in dark rooms. Everything is visible, yet much is hidden. A tripod leg visible behind a thigh that ends abruptly in empty space; a muscular arm nests around a camera lens that reflects back my own gaze. The longer I look, the more complicated these images become. Spaces and bodies are doubled, tripled, weaving in and out of bent mirror-space. I was mistaken. I don’t understand these images at all. Yet I’m drawn into them. Allowing my gaze to take in three or four at a time, each with its own gravitational pull, I feel the weightlessness of desire.

I’m pulled first to “Darkroom Mirror Study (0X5A1531)”. A male form hunches nude behind a camera. I cannot see his face. In its place the camera’s lens, a perfect circle at the center of the composition, looks out. A tripod’s middle leg is a vertical line dividing the image into thirds: black space, black machine, black body. The body is slightly, gracefully, foreshortened, which suggests I’m looking up from below, while the camera’s perfect circle insists a straight-on view. The uneasy prosthesis between camera and photographer is replicated between viewer and image in the form of this minor disorientation. A blackness fills the left third of the composition — not nothingness, exactly — over which hangs something like curls of smoke, which I first read as an evocation of stage magic: the black curtain, the pop of some visual surprise and flourish of gloved hands. But there are no gloved hands here. Upon closer inspection, these are not curls of smoke but fingerprints, revealing the entire image the surface of a mirror. The oily fingerprints mark a messy provenance of that mirror’s handling and placement. A document of touch.

“Mirror Study (4R2A0857)”, 2016, Archival pigment print, Collection of Joshua Friedman, Los Angeles; “A Ground (0X5A1495)”, 2018, Archival pigment print, Courtesy of the artist and DOCUMENT, Chicago; “Darkroom Mirror Study (0X5A1531)”, 2017, Archival pigment print, Collection of Hedy Fischer and Randy Shull, Asheville, NC

In the three images on the gallery’s first wall, Sepuya’s vocabulary is more readily dissected. In “Studio (0X5A0173)”, a collage of photographs and prints are attached in three vertical strips to the surface of a mirror, all but covering the artist. A shoulder, an arm, a wrist, a tripod leg. Sepuya deftly uses these cuts of prints and photographs fixed to mirrors to further complicate and fragment the images, simultaneously covering and uncovering. The studio setting (white wall, lightly polished concrete floor) resembles the characteristics of the Blaffer’s gallery, i.e. the sharply lit nonplace of the white cube. This resemblance, present throughout the exhibition, heightens the alluring and pervasive sense of specular alterity. What’s going on here?

(left to right): “A Portrait (0X5A6109)”, Archival pigment print, Courtesy the artist and team (gallery, inc.); “Studio (0X5A0173)”, 2017, Archival pigment print, Courtesy the artist and DOCUMENT, Chicago; “Model Study (0X5A3973)”, 2017, Archival pigment print, Courtesy the artist and team (gallery, inc.)

The strips of material taped to the mirror are a key to understanding how this specular realm is constructed and how these images operate on phenomenological and political levels. This tactic creates a bewildering and beguiling visual complexity. In “Mirror Study (0X5A1317)”, a male figure, again nude, is visible from behind, seated on a bench, camera clasped between a curled wrist and rigid torso. The body ends abruptly in space. Joined at the pelvis, the reflection of a thigh, now front facing, continues the form, a chimera of a single body divided and rejoined, evoking W.E.B. Du Bois’s “double-consciousness”:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.[1] [2]

I have thus far only discussed the artist’s self- portraits. Sepuya’s exploration of a Du Boisian fragmentation — of bodies, of space, of photography and the creative act itself — is most complete in his portraits of others, which frequently use these techniques to reconstitute the fragmented bodies into strange knots of arms, thighs, and torsos. In these composite portraits, there is a slippage between part and whole, anatomy and person: important terrain given wider politics of representation, where implicit fragmentation contributes to the dehumanization of black individuals as bodies and subsequent alienation. Sepuya reverses this process. In these photographs, fragmentation is constructive, recalling Laboria Cuboniks’ Xenofeminism: “The construction of freedom involves not less but more alienation; alienation is the labour of freedom’s construction.”[3]

(left to right): “Mirror Study (0X5A7394)”, 2018, Archival pigment print, Collection of the Columbus Museum of Art; “A Portrait (0X5A8325)”, 2018, Archival pigment print, Courtesy the artist at team (gallery, inc.); “Mirror Study for Joe (_2010980)”, 2017, Archival pigment print, Private collection, Chicago; “Mirror Study (0X5A1317)”, 2017, Collection of Hedy Fischer and Randy Shull, Asheville, NC

In “Mirror Study (4R2A0857)” arms of light and dark skin interlock in a triangular cutout at the center of the composition. As with many of the photographs here, patterns of entwined light and dark skin create rhythms, evoking intimacy between artist and subject as well as between artwork and viewer. The fragmentation and mirroring, the concealment of faces, allows the viewer to imagine entering these alien tangles of touch, to imagine oneself bare, scattered, doubled, alien and unfolding. In vulnerable communion with an Other:   Lacan in reverse. Looking at oneself in the mirror, too, is a vulnerable act, and there’s something of that replicated here in these photographs of mirrors, heightened by the nesting reflections, images in images. An interiority.

“Bedroom Portraits” (detail of installation view), 2005, Inkjet printed artist book. Collection of Darin Kelin, Los Angeles

Nesting/interiority and covering/uncovering are central to the images’ power, psychologizing the studio as a place of vulnerability and intimacy. The artist’s face is almost always hidden, yet its presence is heightened by its absence. The bends in space are constructed not of shots of an empty studio but of other portraits. Are these friends? Lovers? It’s instructive that a display case in the second gallery includes his artist book Bedroom Portraits. Men gaze dreamily at the camera. These exude vulnerability, if not overtly physical intimacy. In an adjacent case, “Studio Work” presents texts and process material interpolated with more such photographs. Dried orange peels scatter the arrangement, suggesting a vanitas, bringing understanding to Sepuya’s overall treatment of the studio: its tools and environs are rendered with the same sensuality (and urgency unto death) as figures of lovers. The studio, the space and materials of creation, are shown as a paradoxical space of sanctum and vulnerability, of revealing and concealing. For the artist who is black and queer, this place of interior safety is not insignificant in contrast to an exterior world hostile to non-normative expressions of masculinity (which these portraits exude, softly, tenderly), to say nothing of queer black masculinity.

(left to right): “Study (_R2A9181), 2015”, Archival pigment print, Courtesy the artist and DOCUMENT, Chicago; “Figure (_2010037)”, 2017, Archigal pigment print, Collection of Linda Hargrett and Carlos Lago, Miami; “Darkroom Mirror (_2060999)”, 2017, Archival pigment print, Collection of the artist

The exploration of cyclically inverting, interpenetrating interiority and exteriority is a productive process that draws me closer, through Bachelardian corners, rooms inside of rooms, labyrinth of limb and mirror, realm of touch, finally withdrawn behind the silvered surface of the mirror. Fingerprints mark not only the provenance of handling but document a frustrated attempt to merge with the specular. The photographs, too, withdraw behind Plexiglas: especially in the case of darker images, this adds an additional layer of reflections. Studio (interior) and gallery (exterior) merge in a living double exposure, engaging the viewer as a participant in the Du Boisian double-consciousness (or even triple-consciousness), and initiating a deterritorialization of gallery space. Like one of those ‘spot the difference’ children’s games, in which two nearly-identical images are placed side-by-side, one is invited to examine the ways in which the art world (and the capitalist hegemon it mirrors) diverges from the safety and vulnerability of Sepuya’s studio. Critically, it invites an examination of the ways that the studio, too, doubles its outside.

The valences of desire operate in this process, too: the allure of the figures, the artist’s playful sensitivity. Skin as a translucent film, stretched over veins, tendons, and muscle. This is not only the result of Sepuya’s handling of the medium, but also because his subjects are beautiful. The men are young, trim, able-bodied, and well-endowed. They look towards the camera with bedroom eyes and tousled hair. Maybe they aren’t models, but there’s something model-like about them. I wonder what power these images might hold if Sepuya photographed less attractive subjects?[4] I’ll return to this momentarily. It could be argued that Sepuya’s photographs aim to queer normative representations of beauty by injecting his portraiture with non-normative intimacy and tender masculinity. But do queer or subversive representations of beauty result in their own expressive double-consciousness? Which is to ask, do they amplify as well as subvert the norms they aim to problematize? What do we make of this double image? These questions intimate larger cultural conversations around the politics of representation. Awareness of the ways epistemic violence propagates through networks leads to a (necessary and vital) concern for the hidden valences of language/representation and their tangible impacts. In discussing the ethics of such valences as they appear in these images, it’s important to observe they emanate from a place of disempowerment, i.e. queer and black, employing a variance of normative beauty standards in a manner that complicates the relationship between those standards and certain hegemons. I don’t believe these attempt to queer or deterritorialize beauty itself, as Mappelthorpe’s photographs do (for example), but they attempt to deterritorialize the gaze, the gallery, and the darkroom. Returning to my previous question (“I wonder what power these images might hold if Sepuya photographed less attractive subjects?”), the images’ relationship to power would shift subtly towards an oppositional stance and cease to operate as double images, which risks collapsing their specular alterity into something more normative (or worse, obligatory), exchanging their aesthetic operation for an ethical position. The power of these photographs is in their doublings, their slippages, their subtlety.

“Darkroom Mirror (_2070386)”, 2017, Archival pigment print, Collection of the artist

In the exhibition’s most powerful work, “Darkroom Mirror (_2070386)”, Sepuya holds the camera, centered, as another figure, face unseen, clasps the former’s face, obscuring his vision with fingers and palm as the second figure turns away. Double blind. There are no fingerprints on this mirror. Neither is there evidence of its construction or artifice. The camera and mirror reveal a moment of complete interiority, of perfect vulnerability, understood only as touch. The exterior world, diffuse greenish reflection of gallery lights, receding, withdrawn into a dark velvet curtain, greenish glint in the lens’s void orb, the print’s soft grain and the paper’s surface, hand wrapping softly over eyes. To Caravaggio the peach; to Mapplethorpe the flower; to Sepuya the mirror.

— Steve Kemple

Paul Mpagi Sepuya runs through March 14th at the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston. http://blafferartmuseum.org/

[1] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago: A.C. McLurg & Co., 1903), 3.

[2] I owe my use of this quote to Keliy Anderson-Staley, who referenced it in a gallery talk November 13th. Her talk deeply informed my reading of this exhibition and, subsequently, this essay.

[3] In context: “XF seizes alienation as an impetus to generate new worlds. We are all alienated — but have we ever been otherwise? It is through, and not despite, our alienated condition that we can free ourselves from the muck of immediacy. Freedom is not a given — and it’s certainly not given by anything ‘natural’.  The construction of freedom involves not less but more alienation; alienation is the labour of freedom’s construction.” Laboria Cuboniks, The Xenofeminist Manifesto: A Politics for Alienation (London: Verso, 2018) https://www.laboriacuboniks.net/index.html#zero/2

[4] To turn the critical mirror inward: would I be so quick to ask such a question if these were female-presenting bodies?

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