In Conversation with Alex Bacon

Alex Bacon: The first question that comes to my mind is why you chose the different formats you did in terms of organizing and printing the images? Because you’ve chosen to frame some of the images, and you’ve chosen different sizes. I’m especially fascinated in a way with these ones which are tacked to the wall. But maybe we could start by talking about why you chose to print the images and frame and display them in this way?

Paul Mpagi Sepuya: In the previous two shows I’d done I didn’t hang anything to the wall. I tended to put things on shelves, because I am interested in the idea of the photographs as objects and this instability in them and also referencing a domestic space or the kind of space where things have a potential to shift and move over time.

In my studio at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC) Residency over the past year I had been taking more snapshots of my working environment- things in my house or things in the studio- but I had never even looked at them. So as I had a larger studio at LMCC I started thinking not just how the photographs shift and move when they’re final pieces on the wall or on a shelf, but of the whole editing process. You have this idea and there’s always a particular reason or point in time why a portrait is taken. So there’s that point, then there’s the time that elapses from printing that work, and then there’s editing. These things sit on my desktops and they’re shuffling around.

My concept for this exhibition began with two anchors. There is Michael, Landscape, which is a large, framed static piece because that is a subject and a person I have returned to across several projects, about this mutability of trying to actually pin something down. And there is the triptych, Site of a Portrait, where I wanted to image a moment when a portrait is happening, and within it all of these crossing gazes and agendas. So those are the anchors on either end. And then these other works that are pinned to the wall are snapshots, and then there is a small, framed snapshot triptych that corresponds to the large wall pieces. I wanted the overall installation to be balanced as well as to call into question which things are more formal or permanent and which things are loose.

AB: So in a way you framed this image because it is in a sense an anchor. I feel that maybe you only have three or four actual photographs in this show but there’s maybe ten or so works total, so then these photographs are intermingling. And then there are these almost collage effects that happen in the triptych work and then these where you’re layering different objects on top of it and so I’m wondering how you got the idea to have the image circulate in that way and why in a sense to retain photography as the medium. They are not about tricks or effects as much as layering and physically objects juxtaposed with one another and then photographed again.

PMS: These came out of me re-photographing prints of the “anchor” portraits in my own space and other people’s apartments. Part of it was from not having a studio over the summer when the snapshots were taken so all of this work that I had came back into my home and some of them are just kind of things are thrown and strewn around and you catch a glimpse of something and it’s obscured …

AB: And you mean that, to clarify, in a physical sense, you don’t mean on a computer? You mean on a table…

PMS: Yes, among other things. They are photographs of the photographs being objects and things. They are not digital collages but I guess they have that look of collage, of layering.

AB: So is this part of how you think, or work, or even just how you organize your artistic space?

PMS: Yes. Just to be surrounded by the work. So I’m pinning things up and come to spend time with them.

AB: Because how long, in a sense, did you live with these images. Or even just the initial images, before the idea to have this kind of intermingling, which ended up becoming this show, happen?

PMS: The main pieces from this, those that everything is based on, those portraits were made in December of 2009 and February of 2010. The connecting snapshots were made over this past summer before the exhibition as the content developed.

AB: And when you say “content” do you mean that you want the works to express certain content to any viewer that comes upon them, or do you mean in a sense their content for you?

PMS: Yes. For me. For the people in them. It’s like the story that you overheard but that’s never you outright. So I would like it to be apparent to anyone who comes in and spends time with the work what’s going on that there is a situation of reflecting and revisiting, and going back. But to know these particular details that connect all of these people I don’t think is necessary at all for me to share with the viewer. I don’t tell any specific stories with my projects. But I like to open the space, to create the framework where people can then fill these things in.

AB: Yes, because there seems to be an interesting tension to my mind at least between the sense in which there does seem to be some sort of narrative.

These images are not evocative per se to the casual viewer in their relationship. But nonetheless there is a relationship and so you are intrigued and you’re going through and I feel like the circulation that happens with the images, from image to image, happens with the viewer as well. The viewer is not statically moving from image to image in this way where each seems discrete: “I see this one, and I absorb it. OK, on to the next.” It’s something different, you’re constantly moving back and forth. Bouncing. Walking in maybe a different order because I feel like there is that tantalizing promise almost that going through and shuffling the cards in some way that eventually they will make sense together and have a narrative.

PMS: If you have a very tightly focused deck, you can shuffle it any way and it still tells the same story just because you can look at all these relationships juxtaposed while spread out at once. And I like that experience of not going through in a straight line also being able to look at one piece and look at another piece through a different sight line.

AB: I’m intrigued on a formal level at the way in which the work seems very flat. Obviously it’s photography, and it’s representational in that sense, so it necessarily conveys some sense of space, but you seem to try as much as possible to not have this sense of “I’m existing in a space.”. The viewer knows in a physical way this is one thing placed on top of another, but visually in the finished image it’s experienced as next to the other. And that’s especially drawn out I think in the triptych. I think that’s interesting. Is that part of how you approach the portrait? Are you trying to accomplish something spatially?

PMS: There’s a few things that more recently I’ve played around with with the idea of depth. But I was more interested in these slight obstructions that make you more aware of the flatness of the space. Because I’m not really illustrating in this one side of the portrait in a sense I am imagin the physical space where something’s happening but they’re not spacious. You can’t fall into them. They are pretty flat. But with my earlier portraits they are very much a subject or subjects who are presented and there’s not really very much depth going on so I think part of the arrangement of the large ones is that tension between the flatness and the space that’s illustrated in them so it sort of constructs this idea of a room but you’re not in it.

AB: You can’t enter the space, which is interesting.

PMS: There are a lot of portraits I did in 2008 and 2009 where I was pulling a little more back into environments because I like to have this little tension where you’re catching bits of edges in portraits. So there are a lot of portraits of the past two years where you’ll the edge of a leaf of a plant, or a cat’s tail, or something. So there are these isolated things that are going on, but with a little nudge of that kind of draws you towards the edges.

AB: No I think this is something very poignant about the images. Which is that the intimacy is to me more conveyed in the repetition and the circulation rather than say the images themselves, because I think there is that remove.

There is that sense in which I know this person, these people seem to have opened up to you. There is a sense of a relation to them, but you do set this kind of distance so it’s interesting to think about those two different levels of why is there clearly this intimate space, the space itself is repeated, and the people are repeated, and the photograph itself is repeated… So why is there this remove?

And I wonder, is this show itself one portrait? Is the portrait the collective experience of the circulation, the intimacy of relationships, the interconnectedness. Thus, is it one portrait?

What is the thing that separates them from being pictures of people and the question of portraiture as a kind of genre?

PMS: That’s why I called the show Portraits/Positions. I think there are two portraits in the show and the rest of the work is really positioning it among the other people involved in making those things happen.

But what this show is about is really exploring the things that surround the portrait, that sort of place it where and why they’re happening and how the portrait, the image, as objects, move and accumulate, and maybe lose and shift meaning through both casual placement over time or through personal decoration, embellishment, how they’re treated. I think all of the surrounding works are meant to really inform and complete the two isolated portraits.

AB: The title being Portraits/Positions reveals something else… But what continues to be meaningful for you about something like the portrait as a term? I imagine, though maybe this isn’t true, that you approach your work and you don’t think “I’m making a portrait.” But it’s maybe something that comes after? I wonder?

PMS: I would say that the portrait comes first… There might be gaps of time between making work. But I’m always making portraits. That’s kind of the recurring backdrop of things. But there are so many other ideas that weave in and out of them, so what I’ve found in my process is that I’m consistently making portraits and then I’m pulling certain things out at certain times, for certain reasons, to explore other ideas that they bring up.

I’m interested in how the process of making portraiture affects all of the things around it. The process of measuring something changes that thing that you’re trying to look for. So you had it pinned down, but it’s moved somewhere else, it’s this constant looking.

AB: But why are you drawn to the portrait? What makes them portraits for you, versus anything else that they could possibly be?

PMS: Why the portrait? Oh, because I can’t imagine anything I like doing more than taking portraits! [laughs]

It’s easy to take pictures of people, but they are portraits because they are always personally invested in the process. whenever the artist, and the other person involved, even if that other person is another artist, or a friend, or family, or whatever, it will be a portrait, and it will be a portrait that reflects on both the person portrayed and the person making it. So yes, I think I’m grounded in portraiture, but I really like playing around and exploring a lot of the spaces that open up when I look at how those interactions really take place and how they affect the people that are involved in them. And I like taking portraits. [both laugh]


Conversation took place September, 2010 on the occasion of the exhibition Portraits/Positions in New York City.