An introduction to Beloved Object & Amorous Subject (Revisited), by Nicholas Boston

I first discovered Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s work in 2005 when I came across the premier issue of his self-published zine series, SHOOT, at Printed Matter, Inc., in New York. I visited his website and was absolutely enraptured by his portraits, which to me just screamed, “Tell All!” [maybe a description of what caught the eye?] I emailed him to ask whether he would consider shooting me for a project on which I was working at the time. He responded enthusiastically, though with what I interpreted as a bit of apprehension: “Tell me more about yourself,” he wrote me. “What do you do? Where did you see my work? Where is the photograph going to appear?”

My own interest was spiked by his response. I had approached a couple of other emerging artists whom I was considering and Sepuya’s slight interrogation gave me the strongest sense of personality, curiosity and personal emotional investment in the work. After several correspondences, we meet that July for lunch in Brooklyn and then a visit to his house, where I documented our conversation about his process, before and while he shot my portrait.

At this time, Sepuya had just begun work and thought on the portraits that would eventually become BELOVED OBJECT AND AMOROUS SUBJECT, REVISITED. The project’s kernel, as he described it to me then, was to shoot a series of men – friends, acquaintances and strangers alike – seated on his bed, with the plain white background of the wall behind them. He lacked a studio in which to take pictures, but that was not the reason for his decision. Rather, it had to do with a desire to foreground intimacy and question personal space. He also wanted to explore the psychologies of posing and body language, which is how the idea of a series in which all the subjects are asked to assume some subtlety of the same stance emerged.

All but two of the “beloved objects” directly regard the camera. Several are slouching. Sepuya was interested in photographing men in this pose, not because he viewed it as a characteristic common to the individuals, but a peculiar bodily idiom to be isolated and explored. The slouch served as a stylistic play that simultaneously extracted and conveyed additional meaning throughout the project. Sepuya was interested, also, in capturing his subjects’ faces in as close to still repose as possible. Only one of the sitters is pictured smiling. (In another series, Sepuya experimented with rendering portraits of men with their eyes shut.)

“In these pictures there are close friends, there are some good acquaintances, there’s a couple of people that I’ve had various confusing relationships with,” Sepuya said in an interview. “But I think the common thing of all of them is the portraits are taken at a particular time when the dynamics of a relationship aren’t fully established. The portraits of the men […] reference something that is going on at a particular place in time within this group of people…At a certain point I need to figure out what is my relationship to this group of friends, to these strangers, between my eye and my feelings … Overall the work is about the insecurities, failings and confusion that goes on in-between. It is about how the camera mediates within this space and allows me to investigate, and hopefully resolve, these relationships.”

In creating the body of work brought together in the exhibition BELOVED OBJECT AND AMOROUS SUBJECT, REVISITED, Sepuya drew inspiration from Roland Barthes’ 1977 treatise, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, in which, Sepuya writes in his artist’s statement, “Barthes poses the question to himself of what is the definition of and how to quantify his desire.” Barthes’ text is nonlinear and impressionistic. The fragments in the title are rendered as philosophical or literary stagings of an amourous subject’s search to identify and be identified by an anonymous beloved other. This journey leads the seeker time and again through the ambiguities and complications contained in such a wide-reaching search, and obliges him repeatedly to duel with the social constructedness of desire. As such, A Lover’s Discourse speaks not of and for the fulfillment of love and desire, but a consideration of the signs that operate in and through them.

“Show me whom to desire,” is one of Barthes’ fragment. “Induction / induction,” he writes, “The loved being is desired because another or others have shown the subject that such a being is desirable: however particular, amorous desire is discovered by induction.” [My emphasis.]

The show, which ran for the month of June 2007, was installed as twenty simple, white-framed portraits resting at eye level on shelf space in one linear continuum against four walls of Envoy. Each photograph is titled for the first name of the sitter, but a few also have the word “revisited” appended, signaling that these shots resulted from a re-editing at a point further down the timeline of the acquaintanceship between artist and sitter. The show’s ethos: to examine what each man has meant to the artist, and vice-versa, at minutely specific points in their relationship.

On the evening of May 31, 2007, a group of Sepuya’s friends and their friends, in addition to a stream of gallery goers, arrived at Envoy for the opening of BELOVED OBJECT AND AMOROUS SUBJECT, REVISITED. Several of the photographs’ subjects were present, their faces reflecting in different ways two years’ worth of growth and living. At different points, each stood in front of his image to pose for a picture by a digital camera pulled from this pocket or that tote bag. The energy in the space was like a reunion – the summer was about to begin, camaraderie and happiness.

 

-Nicholas Boston

Fall, 2007. Originally published in Beloved Object & Amorous Subject (Revisited), 2008.