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.

5.8.17 — The Mirror and the Lightning

More than sixty years ago, M. H. Abrams compared two metaphors for literature and art. Where classicists spoke of holding a mirror up to nature, he wrote, the Romantics saw an active mind illuminating nature as under a lamp. With Mark Steinmetz, make that a bolt of lightning.

In 1994 he photographed just that, descending from the clouds to strike a four-lane highway. It seems to draw the converging parallels together, set one side askew, and throw the trees to either side to the wind. Mark Steinmetz's Lightning Strike, Mississippi (Yancey Richardson, 1994)Its reflection in wet Tarmac extends all the way to the foreground, at Yancey Richardson through May 13, cutting across the stripes between lanes and casting an eerie shadow a few feet away.

Steinmetz captured a decisive moment, perhaps the ultimate decisive moment—but that ideal has long meant the pursuit of perfection, and his turf is anything but perfect. It is the South over more than twenty years, although he has also worked in Los Angeles along with Garry Winogrand, and it means enough to him that he titles every photograph with a place name. It is a world of trailer parks and gas stations at night. It is where a young woman lies on her back on a mattress on the floor or on the hood of a car, fast food by her side. That lightning strike took place in Mississippi, and it just barely missed a truck, which barrels ahead oblivious to danger. The bright headlamps and distant silhouette are the sole objects on the road apart from the water and the light.

He will have anyone looking for the smallest sign of life, like that truck—and it is not easy, not even when the life is right before one’s eyes. Someone lies half hidden in a pile of leaves, like Cindy Sherman in one of her ghoulish self-portraits. The subject’s legs are set in one direction and his torso, when it finally emerges, in another as if it belonged to another body entirely. A boy in the passenger seat almost obliterates the man behind the wheel. None of them look all that confident or composed, not even a man holding a boy to his chest. Women, with raised hands and restless eyes, look more imposing but only slightly more at ease.

Steinmetz brings them all close and lets them have their say, but at a distance that the camera can never fully overcome. He travels from state to state like Robert Frank before him or Lee Friedlander by car, but he does not set his subjects within the bustle of life. These are portraits and American landscapes, but neither idealized nor staged. Often, the gallery explains, he asks a stranger to repeat a gesture from a moment before. It is his way of treating them as neither models as for Irving Penn, nor types as for August Sander, nor freaks as for Diane Arbus, but themselves. And still, the distance remains.

Much of the barrier lies in the light, which never just illuminates like a lamp. With the girls on their back, it lends their skin the pallor of a mask. It makes the ripples in a creek as hard as glass—and the struggles of a man wading even harder. It bathes each gas pump in a spherical glow. A black balloon at dusk rises above the neon advertising mobile homes. An airplane appears to fly right into a streetlight that has distended way beyond its proper size, but no doubt the bulb just happens to coincide with the moon.

Steinmetz relishes the contrast between his foreground clarity and the background, always in black and white, but one can never say for sure where one ends and the other begins. It takes a moment to realize that the ribbon on a dark panel belongs to the inside of a door—and the blur of a diner to the other side of the glass. Maybe he never has to look for beginnings and endings, because things just go on as they were. The photos belong for the most part to the mid-1990s, but nothing much seems to have changed since then. A girl still carries a cheap Kodak, as if to declare her independence of the photographer, and a weed appears trapped in a crack in the roadbed that may never get repaired. For all the felt isolation, these lightning strikes add up to a way of life.

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