5.10.17 — Mirrors and Curtains

Allow me to follow up from last time with a review of the previous photography show at the same gallery. In the rush of things, I never had time to post it.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya must love being in the studio. He must love even more hiding its traces. His photographs bring its contents ever so close to the picture plane, but isolated from one another and their purpose. His hands reach out to them or hold them, patiently. Paul Mpagi Sepuya's Self-Portrait Study with Two Figures (1506) (Yancey Richardson, 2015)Collage may bring them closer together or more firmly apart. They record a work in progress that may never appear apart from its making.

He has been making and remaking it for a while now, as a study in gender and blackness—and I have added this to other recent reports on portraiture, race, and male identity as a longer review and my latest upload. He appeared at the Studio Museum in 2010, in a show of “conceptual art and identity politics.” Soon after, his studio itself entered the museum, as he became an artist in residence, and he wrapped up the year by taking it into the museum’s galleries. Sepuya transferred it bit by bit over the course of an exhibition. Additional photographs recorded its dismantling behind the scenes. The museum called the show “Evidence of Accumulation,” but it could just as well have said evidence of dispersal or the accumulation of evidence.

His work still serves as elusive keys to his identity, at Yancey Richardson through April 1 and recently in a group show at Sikkema Jenkins with Deana Lawson and Judy Linn through February 18. Those hands may reach out to his own, in a mirror. They may also reach out to another’s, a white male’s. Perhaps the very same men lie on their back in portraits. The casual air and cluttered compositions can weaken them. Yet they also have frank vulnerability and eroticism, much like the work of Nan Goldin.

Studio materials include curtains, in black, white, or a velvety red. They may lie within a picture or over it, almost covering it completely. So may other images, by the very nature of collage. As if to distance them further, they sometimes appear in black and white. Rephotographing then brings them closer to a finished work or still further away. All one can say for sure Sepuya that he approaches them with care and, often as not, with love.

It may help to examine the photos less for meaning than for oppositions. A structuralist would say that meaning always emerges from oppositions anyway. Here the pairs include mirrors and curtains, the outside world and the studio, layering and covering, the work and the work in progress, the artist and subject, patience and desire, black and white, Harlem and Chelsea, LA and New York. (Sepuya is from Southern California and divides his time between east and west coast.) Maybe, too, one should look past the contraries. At the opening, the gallery served neither red nor white, but rosé, and I did not stay to try it.

Black and white appear, too, in portraits by Pieter Hugo. Hugo photographs children and emerging adults in Rwanda and his native South Africa, recently at Yossi Milo through March 11. They may look lost in flowery white dresses or comforted by a bed of red earth. One boy holds another in his arms, like father and son or a Madonna and child, but without a smile or a myth. They all play out against a loss of innocence, thanks to their births after 1994—the year of genocide in one country and the end of apartheid in the other. Like Sepuya, they lie between narratives, while questioning them all.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

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