The Brooklyn Rail : Paul Mpagi Sepuya “Figures, Grounds and Studies,” by Phillip Griffith
The relational spaces opened by the images in Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s Figures, Grounds and Studies are a happy disturbance to the homogenizing squares and grids of social media and dating app profile photos. Most of the images in this exhibition involve the photographing of mirrors with cut-up fragments of other photographic prints taped to them; others feature bodies hidden and revealed by heavy drapes. The photographs scramble our efforts to parse what is figure and what is ground, and the encounter of different skin tones, of bodies differently marked by race but apparently sharing a gender, complicates our identifications with the images and their figures.
In a small side gallery of the exhibition, where a series of four photographs hang together, I found myself caught in the center of the room. In each photograph, the camera takes its own portrait in a mirror with the applied fragments of other prints characteristic of Sepuya’s work in this series. Without the cue of the mirror’s edge or frame in the photograph, figure and ground vacillate in these studies. The camera, caught in its own self-portrait, appears to point toward the viewer. Standing there, I became the subject of and third-party witness to this camera and its reflection, looked at by the camera yet without my own pale-complexioned appearance in the image.
Mirrored, fragmented self-portraits of Sepuya recur as a trope throughout, along with the fragmented figures of his models. The portraits that only reveal parts of the photographer and his models’ bodies nourish themselves on the erotics of the studio encounter. In Darkroom (1990407) (2016), a play of hands reveals the hint of a body behind a curtain: what are presumably Sepuya’s hands have just arranged the drapery, and one of the subjects’ (white) hands emerges to hold it in place; in the bottom-left corner, a paler thigh reveals itself, with slender fingers resting against the flesh. Here recalling the hands of a Caravaggio, Sepuya’s engagement with portraiture clearly reaches beyond the photographic studio. A Sitting for Matthew (2016) includes two fragments of reproduced photographic prints of a man peeking into a hand mirror that allows him, in this second layer of imagery, to peer out from behind a heavy black curtain in the studio’s foreground. The image reverses the play of gazes and genders from Tintoretto’s rendition of Susanna’s bath, the subject of the portrait surprising me—the interloping viewer (or pervy voyeur in this comparison)—with his gaze.
Mirror Study (2016), which opens the exhibition, has lingered with me most: the photographer captures himself photographing a cut-up portrait of a man taped to a mirror, hiding the camera and all but his arms behind what remains of the printed image (only the man’s arm). The two figures represented in this study, or double portrait, are intuited by the edges or frames of the body, their disembodied arms. Strong and of sharply contrasting skin tones, these masculine arms represent lines of racial and sexual normativity to be crossed. The photographer’s arms are at work, while the model’s arm—from the half-dome of his shoulder to firm fingers—stands in place of the photographer’s core, creating a hybrid figure only visible in its disjuncture. And, though not accomplished without a sense of danger or risk in these photographs, how lovingly, I wonder, that Sepuya arranges his frames to become the grounds of his images, just as his figures fragment into their extremities, to find that relation happens only there at our edges and not in a shared core of the self.
– Phillip Griffith