In the 19th century, the early days of studio photography in the United States and Europe, portraits were taken in daylight. Artist Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s upcoming fall exhibition in Vielmetter Los Angeles, “Daylight Studio, Dark Room Studio,” is a tribute to that era, as well as to the traditions of homoerotic visual culture. In his second solo exhibition at the gallery, the photographer’s studio appears as “a particular space that functions in two different ways, depending on the weather and the lighting,” he says. In the white light of day, his subjects stretch out among the objects of the 19th century studio: the curtain, the carpet, the pedestals and the pillows, with sometimes a pair of glasses or Birkenstocks handed over and placed on the edge. path. In the dark of night, conversely, his subjects become the blurs of moving bodies captured under long exposure, bathed in the dim red light of the titular darkroom space. The darkroom is a double meaning, both the space where films and engravings develop, and the clandestine queer space where erotic collisions take place.
Sepuya, 39, is best known for his portraits and the tender intimacy with which he approaches his subjects. “They are all friends,” he said; Between 2004 and 2005, he stopped photographing models and strangers in favor of various relatives and lovers, former, current or future. They appear in his images often reflected in mirrors, sometimes naked, sometimes intertwined or locked in an embrace that evokes the figuration of Rodin. (Many are said to have resurfaced as profile pictures on dating apps.) They are not posed, he says, but captured in improvised playful or flirtatious states. His presentation at the 2019 Whitney Biennale included images by, as well as taken by, writer and poet Ariel Goldberg, and fellow photographers Clifford Prince King and Giancarlo Montes Santangelo; in each of these images, they hold their own cameras. A photograph shows artist AL Steiner lying shirtless on a wooden box, in a pair of black jeans, his hand adjusting the lens as Sepuya’s presses the shutter. The meaning is that each subject has a certain agency in its own image.
Although themes of homosexuality and race are pervasive in his images, Sepuya does not intend to make overt statements about body or identity. “The main focus of the work is photography,” he often says, where his processes and tools, the frequent subjects of the images, are on full display. There is no Photoshop or digital manipulation, just physical elements in his studio that make themselves visible: the velvet canvas, the mirror and the camera. The blackness of the drop cloth has a way of illuminating every fingerprint, streak and smudge on the mirror, making the mirror part of the image. The mirror, in turn, reflects the camera, ever present in Sepuya’s work. Even his titles, like Darkroom studio (0X5A8413) Where Darkroom Studio (0X5A8486), are file names assigned by the camera; the gaps in their numerical sequence are an indicator of the number of stops that have occurred between the two.
As a teenager, growing up in Southern California, Sepuya developed his love for photography by collecting magazines, whether art, fashion or pornography. He moved to New York to study art at NYU, where he received his BFA in 2004.
“New York was a place where I seemed to have made it, because when you’re really busy, nobody knows how someone is actually doing,” Sepuya says. Early in his career, he received critical acclaim for Shoota zine of nude portraits, and publishes his first monograph, Beloved object and amorous subject, Revisited, in 2007. Life in this city, however, proved extremely expensive, and in 2014 he returned West to enroll in UCLA’s MFA program. “It was a way of leaving New York in a way that felt productive.” Sepuya is currently an associate professor at UC San Diego.
Sepuya’s work is now part of the permanent collections of LACMA, MOCA Los Angeles, Guggenheim, Whitney, Getty and many others. Her friends continue to inspire her practice, even if inspiration isn’t quite the right word. “I feel like inspiration has a sense of detachment, as a distant viewer,” he says. “What happens when you’re in an artist community is you’re part of a conversation.”
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