Currently displaying his work in a solo exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, American photographer Paul Mpagi Sepuya crafts his photographs according to principles of deconstruction. Bodies often appear in fragments, obscured by one another, cut off by the framing, hidden among layers of preexisting images, concealed behind the paraphernalia of the photography studio. Paul’s method, in turn, deconstructs the gaze of the viewer; the elements of the image are presented as disjointed slices of vision that turn the act of looking into an act of assembling. In a wider sense, this relates to Paul’s deconstruction of traditional portraiture and his disruption of the relationship between subject, photographer and viewer.
Having started taking photographs during high school, Paul went on to complete a BFA in Photography and Imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, then studied for an MFA in Photography at the UCLA Department of Art. While his earlier projects favour the analogue processes of film photography, he now works predominantly in digital capture. He notes, however, that digital techniques are only employed insofar as they concern the actual taking of the photograph. “Nothing is digital construction,” he tells us. “Everything is physically present.” Every image fragment in the composition is there before the camera, printed images interacting with real bodies.
Speaking of how he approaches his studio photography, Paul refers to Brian O’Doherty’s Studio and Cube: On the relationship between where art is made and where art is displayed, an essay interrogating the contexts in which the thing made by the artist becomes an artwork, and the role of the studio in the creation of art. Quoting O’Doherty, Paul states that he makes work in accordance with the notion of “the collage of compressed tenses” – the crowding of multiple artworks in the studio that all inhabit a space of becoming, of creation, of construction.
In this way, Paul’s art is highly self-reflexive, persistently upholding the presence of the image as a material thing, a made object. Rather than attempting to disguise the processes of image-making and offer up a semblance of reality as if his lens were a window opening onto life, Paul foregrounds the objective physicality of his medium by tactile intervention – tearing photographs apart, taping them together, incorporating the dust, scratches and finger prints on mirrors. Flatness and three-dimensionality are brought into contact as his subjects participate in the processes of making and layering, holding images in place or hiding behind them. Much like Bauhaus photographer Florence Henri, listed by Paul among his artistic influences, he seeks to undercut the use of photography as a medium for realism by a sustained attentiveness to the construction and manipulation of the image within a single shot.
Paul is also influenced by figures like Richard Bruce Nugent, Lyle Ashton Harris, Catherine Opie and Gregg Araki – for all of whom the creation of images is bound up with the construction and visual representation of sexual identity. Simultaneously inviting the viewer to look while partially withholding the image from view, Paul’s photographs, composed principally with male nudes, both evoke and subvert the homoerotic gaze in queer visual culture. Paul includes in his visual references “90s to early 2000s early internet porn bulletin boards”. While laying claim to the sensuality of the male form, particularly the black male nude, and homoerotic desire, he equally points out the voyeuristic role of the viewer and photographer in creating an erotic image, the image-as-object coming to represent the body-as-object, the body dissected into visual fragments – a thigh, a hand, a torso. At the same time, there is a tenderness to the photographs that disrupts the voyeurism implicit in Paul’s invocation of the pornographic gaze. The subjects cradle one another, support each other’s limbs and weave their bodies among one another. Featuring himself, his friends and his muses, Paul’s photographs perform visual eroticism at the same time as portraying real care and intimacy, played out in the process of making the image.
Among these fragments and collages, Paul’s more conventional portraits attain a kind of starkness, sudden moments of sharp clarity that cut through the layers and mirrors. In these images, the subjects appear all the more naked and vulnerable with the relative lack of concealing drapery and enveloping imagery. Even in these, however, Paul draws the viewer’s attention to the photograph as a constructed frame of perception. In Self-portrait (holding Joshua’s hand), for example, the mechanism by which the image is made is evident in the remote shutter release control held in Paul’s hand; and elements of concealment remain present in the exclusion of Joshua’s body from the frame, reducing him to a hand. With this consistent self-reflexivity of composition, then, Paul’s images aim to reveal and conceal, approach and withdraw, invite and deny, open and close, construct and deconstruct.