More than any other type of art, portraits work by producing a sense of closeness or connection to their subjects. We can picture the artist and sitter together in the studio, and by extension we let ourselves imagine that the artist's attention and skill confers some of that same closeness on us.
Since 2005, Brooklyn-based artist Paul Mpagi Sepuya has photographed the people around him -- friends, acquaintances, colleagues and lovers -- producing an ongoing body of casual, softly lit and often sensual portraits. In that same time, he's worked to complicate and expand these images, re-photographing the prints that collect in his studio, producing artist books and fanzines, and experimenting with gallery installations that visualize relationships between his recurring subjects.
Produced during a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem and currently showing at Platform, Sepuya's Studio Work attempts to preserve the intimate exchanges captured in his photographs by bringing artifacts of the studio into the gallery itself. The exhibition comprises portraits and still lifes made during the program, a series of large-format Xeroxes, a publication and a collection of studio detritus. Stacks of test prints, boxes of books, potted plants and empty wine bottles crowd an L-shaped table in the centre of the gallery.
Sepuya's portraits result from informal exchanges among friends, and Studio Work seeks to reanimates those moments, albeit indirectly. Books and other objects that appear in the photographs re-emerge in the installation amid other material. The accumulated mass of smaller prints yields new pairings and configurations of people and portraits, elegantly reflecting the shifting, provisional nature of human relationships and the equivocal relationship of photography to lived experience.
The work's carefully managed esthetic does threaten to overshadow these nuances at times, however. For better or worse, Studio Work occupies the same visual terrain as hipper men's lifestyle magazines and gay-oriented Tumblr blogs -- a recognizable blend of minimalist style, chic decor, fashion photography and soft-core porn.
Taken together, the carefully orchestrated messiness, oversized photocopies, potted succulents, sawhorse-style tables and sparsely appointed, white-walled New York studio are "on point" to the point of mild fatigue. It would uncharitable to say all one gets from Studio Work is an aspirational celebration of Sepuya's cute friends and New York artist's lifestyle, but the work's unrelenting commitment to style does strain some of the subtle, insightful and seemingly heartfelt connections that it makes.
Sepuya is an undeniably sensitive, skilled portraitist, and his individual pictures retain a powerful sense intimacy and directness. This is especially true of those that embrace the sexual dynamic that can exist between model and photographer. In the show's male nude portraits, the clothes scattered across the studio floor always seem to have just come off. One man looks expectantly at the camera, his keys on the floor between his feet. In a self-portrait, Sepuya appears to be halfway into a pose, still wearing one brown sock. Despite their careful composition, the images strike an engaging balance between comfort and anticipation.
What Studio Work on the whole fails to offer viewers, if anything, is the unpredictability and warmth that seem to characterize Sepuya's relationships with his subjects. Actual relationships are actually messy, not artfully so, and sometimes making a meaningful connection means giving up more control than one might like.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.