Studio Work Exhibition Catalogue: Looking at Studio Work, by Naomi Beckwith

The first Paul Mpagi Sepuya works to capture my attention were a series of photographs exploring the notion of “home.” Paul attempted to define “home” in an accumulative way, by shooting landscapes, family members, and domestic spaces, and by collecting family ephemera that, when all pulled together, would perhaps give shape to the places and things that shaped Paul. In the years that followed, Paul’s photography rarely veered far from anyone’s home: many of his projects record his community of friends and lovers and their friends and lovers, almost exclusively shot in their bedrooms, living rooms, and kitchens.

This community of mostly queer, attractive, and creative young Brooklynites was portrayed in a way that gave access to their private, intimate moments and spaces. Some images feign candid shots, capturing a subject absorbed in an exchange with someone who may or may not be included in the frame. Other images are highly composed portraits, though the overall sensibility is informal. Or, at times, the camera is turned on accidental still lifes of crumpled clothes in Paul’s own home. Though the images never feel cloistered, this body of work is, for lack of a better word, introverted, documenting a social scene that feels as close-knit as it is transient.

While Paul’s work depends on a verité sensibility, it deliberately moves away from photography’s documentary pretenses. Paul has had a long-standing interest in not only the formal construction of an image but also how a subject’s identity is constructed via images. As a result, Paul is attuned to how every image — whether framed in a photograph or projected from a person — is a fabrication of sorts; or that every image is, to borrow a phrase from Gustave Courbet, a “real allegory.”

Paul utilizes painting’s historic tropes and mechanisms again and again in the Studio Work series: his subjects assume mannered poses — with a preponderance of nudes in the best classical tradition — and inanimate objects are arranged in the studio space as still lifes or as remnants of a portrait session. Though generally separated in academic art history, the traditions of still life and portraiture are almost interchangeable in Paul’s studio. All of his subjects, whether people, books, plants, or other photos are arranged and shot in specific ways that belie a calculated internal construction. While each photograph’s formal elements draw attention to the conditions of its own making, Paul further underscores the very objecthood of his photo prints as if to drive home the notion of image as constructed object.

For instance, Paul’s photographs often exist in relationship to other photographs — sometimes a print will become a paper object situated within the frame of another photograph; Paul will photograph a cluster of prints arranged on tables as a collage or as a layout-in-process; or several framed photographs sit on shelves and tabletops, in spaces that, again, mimic the domestic sphere. In these conditions, the photograph exists as much as an object as an image. There are many images of Paul placing and manipulating his photographs: these presume to give insight into a working process, but as the viewer remembers that the candid feel of each photo is wholly constructed, he or she realizes that Paul is establishing the prints as tactile, tangible objects. Most telling are Paul’s photos of texts or books with images, where prints are situated in relationship to literature he is reading. In these works, Paul plants his photographs into the social sphere of language and history, implying that all his aesthetic strategies and concerns have a social lineage.

Paul’s practice is generally peripatetic, moving from home to home, constructing aesthetic and social spheres. However, all of the works shown in this exhibition were produced during a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem, an institution whose very name solicits a reflective response to the working space and compels artists to interrogate the meaning and structures of “studio” practice. One of Paul’s strategies was to import his notions of community, family, domesticity, and home into the studio space on 125th Street that he occupied for almost a year.

There is historical precedent for this same strategy very near to where Paul’s images were produced. Just two blocks from the Studio Museum is a late-19th-century brownstone that once housed the GGG Photo Studio run by James VanDerZee, a photographer who chronicled Harlem and its denizens for six decades. VanDerZee’s portraits of socialites, Garveyites, musicians, and his occasional street scene are now prized as historical documentation of Harlem life. Though VanDerZee — like any commercial studio photographer — constructed tableaux and touched up his prints, his interventions are commonly overlooked, ignored in a hindsight desire to construct a narrative of black cultural life in New York. As Paul shot in his own Harlem studio 80 years later, he too used many of the same techniques — recreating a space that feels domestic, with fabric backdrops, props, and soft light — to give a sense of intimacy and candor.

Yet Paul is aware, given the specificity of his subjects, of the “documentary” lens through which his audience may view the work — both now and, especially, in the future — as well as of his own documentary impulse. Paul clearly shares a genuine emotional bond with his subjects, and, though critical of photography’s role in constructing an image and history, uses it not just to record, but literally to create, a lasting community by documenting fleeting moments that accumulate into something approaching history. Each time a subject is shot and exhibited in relation to another subject or group of photographs, Paul reinforces an idea of a very specific community, very much akin to Jean-Luc Nancy’s idea that a community is not a fixed entity with subjects moving in and out of it, but something that only comes into being at the moment when individual subjects are exposed to one another. Community, then, is better understood not as a spatial form (“inside” and “outside”) but as a temporal entity: it exists at the moment things are brought together in relation to each other.


Naomi Beckwith

Published in STUDIO WORK exhibition catalogue, Spring 2012

Download the catalogue here