The artist’s studio can be a staging ground for any sort of desire. In Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s solo exhibition, Figures, Grounds and Studies, currently on view at Yancey Richardson Gallery, the photographer pictures the studio as a site of queer space and desire. At Yancey Richardson, Sepuya presents traditional portraits and large, collaged constructions comprised of many photographs of the artist and friends. Ripped, taped, and reconfigured by hand, the works presented are “self-referential studies,” taken mostly in the artist’s Los Angeles studio. “The figures are extractions from my social world, the ground is the recurring yet slippery space of the studio, and studies, a haptic re-working of figures and grounds,” writes the artist in his thesis report submitted last year to the University of California Los Angeles, where he received his MFA in photography. The content found in each of the images, which were first presented in his UCLA thesis exhibition, encompass the artist’s exploration of the possibilities of studio portraiture, the history of amateur and art historical homoerotic photography, the presentation of pleasure, and the relationship between the figure and the viewer.
“The current project is less inspired than, I’d say, distilled from many ideas I had been struggling to bring together over the years,” the photographer explains to Creators. “I was thinking about how portraiture works within historic homoerotic and contemporary queer cultural, sexual and social exchange; of how the body relates to the generic props and elements of of studio photography, and looking at the fundamental operations of photographic production and deconstruction.” He says, the title of the exhibition was inspired by the Sze Tsung Leong essay, “Words Without Pictures,” which explores the relationship between the figure and ground as a durational viewing space. “In a sense I am thinking about queer erotic subjectivity in the space of my photographs in the same way, between myself, the subjects depicted, and the viewer as developing as an ongoing process.”
Sepuya’s studies image the homoerotic as a kind of collaging of identity and desire. “Mirror Study (4R2A0884),” presents many layers of representation. It depicts the artist and another male figure, holding a mirror and a tripod stand. The image is presented as a re-photographed triangular collage, evoking the presence of the unseen camera held together by Sepuya in his studio. “He holds a mirror, I hold a camera. He reflects me looking at him,” says Sepuya of the study. “We are photographer and subject, voyeurs to each other, our activity mediating a past history of mutual attraction, negotiation, construction, and capture.” The image and other studies, including “Mirror Study (Self Portrait),” “Mirror Study (_Q5A321),” and “Self-portrait Study with Roses at Night,” also show Sepuya’s interest in positioning himself as a desired subject and what he calls “the combination and differentiation of my body and other bodies within a field of erotic relations.”
The Draping and Darkroom images, as well as “A Sitting For matthew,” further display the possibilities of studio space as queer space, which is to say it can be whatever the artist envisions: “The studio is a site that reframes and manipulates, condenses and expands the subjects and relations brought into it,” says the artist, who also shot primary images like, “A Portrait (_DSC8333), Portrait (0083),” in his studio or in the homes and studios of friends. These are traditional representations of black-and-white figures subtly posed, evoking homoerotic desire. “The studio also functions as the repeating ground that allows for the recombining of figures on its surface,” he says. “There is an element of performance, whether the studio is a stage for enacting relations with friends or when I am alone, composing myself in the mirror.”
“Figures, Grounds and Studies lays bare an interdependent formal relationship between my gaze, the subject depicted, and the viewer’s or audience’s presence within a history of queer photographic practices,” concludes Sepuya in his thesis. He argues that these practices are inextricably bound with photography as a medium of constructive desire. “I want these queer, black photographs to exist within historic and contemporary conversations about photography as a whole,” he writes, “affirming the medium and my personal investment in its possible futures.”
Figures, Grounds and Studies continue through April 1 at Yancey Richardson Gallery. For more information, click here.