In his exhibition Double Enclosure, Sepuya enters into a dialogue with himself as artist, his subjects and the spectator. He comments on the medium of photography as a construction of longing: the longing to record things, to look, to touch and to keep. Through a combination of draped fabric, careful framing and layered images of existing work, the viewer sees arms, thighs, torsos and hands, but rarely the whole body of the subject. In this way, the spectator is visually challenged to tease apart the construction of the image. With this visual strategy in which he references a homo-erotic visual culture, he explores the productive and critical power of longing as an essential part of his work.
The exhibition shows a free selection of work from series that Sepuya has developed during the past three years. His photographs often contain fragments or compilations from earlier work, which appear in the image as strips or cuttings, overlap the camera lens or are pasted to the mirror of the studio in which he is taking his photos. He firmly distances himself from digital applications by shooting in his studio mirror and bringing his diversity of materials together in a single plane. Thus, his images are not collages in the true sense of the word, but ingenious compositions created in front of the lens and recorded in a single shot. The subjects portrayed, the camera and tripod, and prints of earlier images come together in layered, collage-like compositions that demand an active form of looking. Moreover, by constantly pointing the camera at us as the central motif in the image, Sepuya makes the spectator aware of himself, as the construction of the image not only takes place via the photographer, but is also strongly dependent on the interpretation of the viewer. In this way, Paul Mpagi Sepuya plays a self-assured game of exposure and concealment, an exploration of surface and reflection, lens and mirror, touching and tracing. His provocative approach arouses a feeling of desire, to see that which is hidden.
Despite its formalistic approach, Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s work is also deeply personal. He never works with models, but exclusively with friends, muses and intimates. Many of these are not only lovers, but also writers and artists whose paths cross in the creative, social and sexual realms of the queer community. The artist himself also regularly appears in his photographs: half concealed behind his camera, prints or draped fabrics, his body broken up in mirrors and reflections, or his body parts reaching out to those portrayed within the context of the photograph – these are fragmented self-portraits. Splitting apart the visual field makes space for a different experience of the relationships playing out within the context of the photograph. Moreover, the mingling of predominantly male body parts breaks with the normalised male gaze: the way in which the visual arts and literature present and reflect the world from a male, heterosexual perspective. Sepuya’s visual strategy with which he reorganises the image and the representation of his subjects makes space for a queer gaze, which both formally and informally distances itself from the norms of photographic representation. This makes Sepuya’s work more than a dialogue of relationships but also of ideas surrounding representation, identity and sexuality.
Paul Mpagi Sepuya (born 1982, USA) lives and works in Los Angeles (USA). He studied photography at UCLA (University of California Los Angeles) and NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Sepuya’s work has featured in countless solo and group exhibitions, recent examples of which include Being: New Photography 2018 in the Museum of Modern Art and in Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon in the New Museum in New York. His work can be found in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Carnegie Museum of Art.