Paul Mpagi Sepuya at Modern Art, London, presented by Team Gallery, New York

17 January 2020 By

Condo is a fantastic concept. Lighting up the darkest month of the year, 17 London galleries collaborate to host galleries from around the world. Last Saturday’s opening day was thronged with people from East to West End: everybody delighted to shake themselves out of the end-of-year hibernation and tackle the ‘palate-cleanser’ of a whole roster of artists they might not be familiar with.

Stuart Shave is hosting New York’s Team Gallery in the ground floor space at Vyner Street, and a very first UK solo showing of work by the Los Angeles based Paul Mpagi Sepuya.  Sepuya’s work is to be included in the Barbican Art Gallery’s forthcoming exhibition Masculinities: Liberation through Photography; that exhibition will include a slew of famous names, so this is a valuable early chance to take a longer look at one of the younger artists selected.

Intensely enjoyable visual puzzles, Sepuya’s works are on one level densely layered palimpsests that capture lived studio time, as well as engaging histories of portraiture, studio photography and queer culture. A work such as Darkroom Mirror (_2140603), 2018, is a useful entry point to understand the semantics of Sepuya’s practice. In it we see parts of two male nudes; one holding a camera pointed at the viewer, the second apparently adjusting the focus on it.

The second figure features as a bent knee crossing the torso of the first, one hand resting, perhaps coercively on his neck. By not showing the faces of the sitters, the image also works to objectify them, though in this and many other works there is a tension in the relationship between the sitters that immediately engages the viewer beyond the formal.

Across the image float white marks that might at first glance be wisps of smoke. Recurring throughout much of the artist’s work, these are evidence of his technique of shooting into a mirror.  The marks are the traces on the mirror of Sepuya’s own hand, or of the bodies of his sitters. As such they catapult the viewer back to the surface of the work, making evident that the image we see is a photographed reflection. As a device it makes the viewer more acutely aware of the spatial depth of the studio, as well as definitively locking us out of that space. As the artist has said: “all included subjects are present in the reflected image.”

Sepuya’s understanding of the nude might take in Ingres and Matisse at one end of a historical scale, but moves through Mapplethorpe and Nan Goldin to the social, sexual and cultural currency of cell phone imagery familiar today. Working only with friends, his practice typically features the standing or sitting nude. The black cloth background is also an instantly recognisable trope of studio portraiture, stretching back to its 19th century origins. A cheap and serviceable means of creating an instant set-up for a portrait, in Sepuya’s work this is freighted with additional layers of meaning.

Blackness is literally the background on which he makes his work; it is in part an exploration of the black body, the black artist, the experience of the queer black male. Mapplethorpe is the obvious comparator here and Sepuya has spoken of his uneasiness in the face of that work. Sepuya routinely includes himself in his portraits, partly as a means of negotiating the power relationship between the subject and object.  Portraiture should not be ‘one-way’, he has said. Sepuya also draws a parallel between the photographic dark room, used for the creation of images designed to be seen, and the “darkroom” as a site of clandestine sexual encounter. His images emphasise trust, intimacy and curiosity, he has said.

In Mirror Ground Study (_1990608), 2018 the artist shoots the reflected image of himself through a slit in the suspended backcloth. His crouching form indicated by shadows and the fingers of one hand emerging from another slit in the cloth, his face substituted by the camera’s lens. In place of a human limb, the slender black leg of a tripod crosses the bottom left hand corner of the image. As with all his works, there is here a sense of performance to camera.

Even when the image is apparently more aligned with collage, such as in Mirror Study (05A0772), 2018, it proves to be once again the reflection of a studio set up. Sepuya pegs test strips of photographs to his mirror, so that body fragments are arrayed across the image and four separate tripod legs denote the passage of time in successive image making.  The eye struggles to disentangle the different registers of the photograph. The ‘tell’ is the artist’s hand, bottom right, presumably flat on the surface of the mirror.

Quite the opposite of the fracturing of our attention caused by social media, Sepuya’s sophisticated and complex approach to the photographic portrait slows down our consumption of the image, forcing deeper enquiry, more considered engagement.

Caroline Douglas

The Contemporary Art Society will be visiting this exhibition on 1 February as part of its CAStour of CONDO, for more information and to book your place please click here.


Modern Art, 50 – 58 Vyner Street, London E2 9DQOpen Wednesday-Saturday 11.00-18.00Exhibition continues until 15 February 2020.