Photographs, and photographs of photographs; cameras, and cameras pointing at cameras; models, and models posing as models: A kind of brooding over these—and the conundrum of whether, by distancing and framing portions of reality, photography thereby deconstructs itself—typifies a technical formalism that has become widespread of late. Artists in this cohort are not so much concerned with making photographs as with examining them in their manifold and contradictory capacities as objects (sheets of chemically treated paper), manifestations of social praxis (ways of relating to other people and the environment), and immaterial entities circulating freely in the world (as digital information).
Rather than offering viewers immediate access to information about the world or simply how some given portion of it looks, artists working in this mode see the techniques, conventions, and history of photography as an interpretive grid that makes some things harder to see and other things easier. They consider that their work can only reflect on the world by looping back on itself—by rendering visible its photographic character as a pre-interpretation of the world that it claims merely to show. Only by pinpointing the fact of its own fictiveness does this kind of work gesture toward some significant aspect of the world beyond. That’s how it happens that an artist like Paul Mpagi Sepuya, whose photographs are as insistently reflexive and formally refined as any being made today, can nonetheless proclaim that in his work, “the sum total of content lies outside of the conversation about art. It’s better served by gossip and friendship.”
Sepuya’s work almost too perfectly encapsulates the current tendency to see photography as a game of mirrors. Its conceptually self-questioning strategies and fastidious-almost-to-the-point-of-finicky aesthetics account, in part, for why he seems to be a must-have artist of the moment. He’s got a track record, having exhibited his work regularly since 2005, but he’s new as well, having only completed his MFA (at the University of California, Los Angeles) last year. Aside from “Figures, Grounds and Studies,” a recent solo exhibition at the Yancey Richardson Gallery—the Californian’s first one-man show in New York since 2010, when he also had a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem—he’s been featured in a three-artist show with Deana Lawson and Judy Linn at another prominent Chelsea gallery, Sikkema Jenkins, as well as a group show curated by fellow artists Moyra Davey and Jason Simon for Callicoon Fine Arts on the Lower East Side. He is also included in the reopening presentation of works from the collection of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in its newly renovated and expanded quarters in SoHo.
Maybe the best place to start trawling through the sudden abundance of Sepuya’s work in New York this winter and spring was his single piece in the group show at Callicoon, “Compassionate Protocols.” Its curators’ intention was to display various forms of photography’s “desiring gaze,” as suggested by Hervé Guibert’s observation of “the difference between the stance required of a Nikon, for instance (upright, potentially confrontational) versus a Hasselblad (bowing over).” The latter, according to the remarkable French writer and photographer, who died of AIDS in 1991, is comparable to a “deflected gaze that is passed from one window to another in the subway for example—when cruising someone. Filtered through its reflection, the gaze loses some of its brutality, gains in impunity.” But I wish Davey and Simon had quoted the conclusion of Guibert’s sentence, the observation that this filtered gaze “especially gains in complicity, in perversity.” The gaze at one remove is no less yearning or intense for that.