Art Review: The Expanded Photograph, by David Everett Howe

[an excerpt]

The work of three American artists shows how photography is breaking the limits of the frame and the constraints of the medium to become an artform that is site-specific, as concerned with overall context and the space of its own existence as any other. Is this another instance of the ‘postmedium’ age we’ve all been promised, or merely a recognition that the specifics of the medium are more wide-ranging than we previously thought?

In one of Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s black-and-white c-print diptychs, Jake (A Reproduction) (2010), a hot, well-built and, incidentally, well-hung young man reclines on a bed, naked except for a leather harness wrapped around his chest. Comfortably outstretched, he looks at the lens casually, as if he were a BDSM subject in Robert Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio (1978), taking a break but perhaps feeling a little horny. It’s a pretty casual setup, though still a posed portrait. In another image, Jake (2009), the same man, wearing the same harness in the same bed (though now in a leather jockstrap), pays no attention to the camera. Rather, he’s looking at himself in a Polaroid, which he holds up in the air. The Polaroid, as opposed to the person, becomes the subject of the photograph, and it’s perhaps indicative of the way that Sepuya, David Gilbert and Jonathan VanDyke have ‘expanded’ the medium, to borrow a term from Rosalind Krauss. She used it to describe postmodernism’s break with Modernism, in which artists became less concerned with an object of sculpture than its space of existence, its overall context (she called this ‘marking sites’). Synonymising what’s within the frame with what’s outside it, what’s posed with what’s not, Sepuya, Gilbert and VanDyke make the studio itself their subject. While they each identify as queer, homosexuality is more footnote than focus; the artists are more notable for turning photography increasingly site-specific, subjecting it to other forms of artistic production.

Take Sepuya’s Desktop, April 23, 2010 (2010), a photograph featuring several other photographs scattered randomly across the artist’s studio desk. Originally shot for editing purposes, it became a work in and of itself only years later, when the artist was in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem. In lieu of the studio operating as a theatrical space for traditional, head-on studio portraits – his trade- mark approach for several years – Sepuya trained the camera, literally, on the studio itself. It was a noticeable shift in his practice, such that throwaway photographs, orange peels, paper towels and other assorted items left around became of formal interest, in and of themselves. A portrait of a man seated on the floor is featured prominently in Darren, September 8, 2011 (2011), propped up on a tabletop surrounded by orange peels, a book and several stacks of ephemera.

These items were not posed just so, but rather left that way by chance. In Studio, February 8, 2011 (2011), an orange rests on a table. A chair is pulled out and draped messily with clothing. Tossed on the floor around a roll of paper towels and beat-up black boots, other garments make notable appearance in Studio, March 2, 2011 (2011), while a c-print, likely fallen from the wall, slumps on the floor in the upper-right-hand corner of the shot, partially cut off. It becomes the focus of another work, Ryan, February 16, 2011 (2011), where it’s still half on the floor, half on the wall, the model’s body marred by glare where the two meet.

Notable in this body of work is the architecture of the studio, its white walls and polished floor becoming something of a still-life landscape, much like the empty beds Sepuya has had a habit of photographing over the years, such as Bed, November 29, 2010 (2010), little more than a black pillow propped upright on a rumpled surface of sheets. These were done almost as an afterthought. Since Sepuya had no proper studio, he used his bedroom, and specifically his own bed, to shoot the many people he considered friends and lovers – most of them gay – after he graduated from school. These bedroom scenes thus reference, intentionally or not, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s iconic billboards of empty beds, Untitled (1991), which served as dramatic memorial to Gonzalez-Torres’s lover, who died of AIDS complications that same year. Thus there’s something faintly elegiac about Sepuya’s work when it’s devoid of people.

In the absence of bodies, his photographs of empty beds and studios become like indexes of past lives, or more probably, future deaths, something akin to what Roland Barthes would call the photograph’s punctum, the ‘this-has-been’ or ‘this-will-die’ of the human subject – here supplanted by space itself, filled with the inanimate traces of many.


David Everett Howe
Art Review, May 2014