CHICAGO | Infinite Like Night
Paul Mpagi Sepuya
April 12–June 1, 2024

Opening Reception
Friday, April 12
5:00–8:00pm

DOCUMENT is thrilled to present Infinite Like Night, Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s fourth solo show with the gallery, opening April 12, 2024.

The exhibition serves as a site of exploration for Blue Studio, the artist’s newest body of work, shown here for the first time. While continuing his investigation of the studio as a place of portraiture and play, these photographs represent a departure from Sepuya’s recent series Daylight Studio / Dark Room Studio (2021-2023), currently featured in the artist’s solo show Exposure at Nottingham Contemporary, on view through May 5, 2024.

Infinite Like Night, the title of the exhibition, is taken from Bruce Nugent’s surreal short story Smoke, Lilies and Jade (1926). Originally published in black literary magazine Fire!!, it was unprecedented in its explicitly bisexual and homoerotic writing and established Nugent as a new voice in the Harlem Renaissance. Sepuya’s own explorations of subjectivity and identity mediated through desire resonate with Nugent’s text; in the works on view at DOCUMENT, studio scenes featuring expansive mirrors and gazing balls are presented in relation to intimate portraits photographed under a deep blue light. The photographic gaze and the queer body remain key themes in Sepuya’s images, while the studio setting and its materials often function as an active framework rather than a simple backdrop, revealing traces of human presence and the devices used to construct images.

The subjects of Sepuya’s photographs are friends who serve as muses, collaborators, and intimates. In this collective form of image-making, the recurring presence and visibility of cameras, tripods, and studio lighting – all forms of equipment necessary in a photographic practice – highlight their role as a support to the artist’s practice. Reflecting on and opposing the traditional relationships between photographer and subject, observer and observed, viewer and object of gaze, Sepuya’s work holds values of community and collaboration.

The images contain a memory – and sometimes vestiges – of concurrent activities in the artist’s studio, whether through the presence of pedestals, velvet curtains, rugs, pillows, towels, or prints of earlier works on the walls. Smudges on the mirror, remnants of touch and movement, suggest a temporality that transcends the stillness of the captured moment. Sepuya uses mirrors as tools to hold and layer fragments of images, and as a means to deny the direct gaze of the viewer’s eye.

Prior to their kitsch resurgence as industrially manufactured decorations, gazing balls have held a variety of uses throughout history, in social contexts both controlling and erotic. Employed by servants to observe guests without disturbing them with their presence and as devices to unobtrusively chaperone young couples during courtship, the contemporary use of gazing balls as innocuous ornamentation for lawns and gardens is at odds with their past life as tools for surveillance. In Sepuya’s Blue Studio, the presence of a pair of blue and silver gazing balls offers yet another possibility of reflection and distortion, hinting at layers of perception and self-awareness within the images.

Infinite Like Night includes three dye sublimation prints on aluminum; framed without glazing, their small scale emphasizes the viewer’s intimate experience of these photographs. In Gazing Ball (_DSF4516), 2023, three figures are visible behind a mirrored sphere on the edge of a pedestal. The gazing ball holds a distorted view of Sepuya’s studio and a trace of natural light – at dusk – peering through the skylight. The other dye sublimation prints, Photographing with Michael (P1270684) and Sitting for Jack (P1270836), both 2023, contain an elevated intensity of intimacy and forms of exchange between the subjects, holding cameras and each other or capturing their reflections in the mirror.

Sepuya’s work is recognized for its use of brown and black tones as found on skin, wood, and velvet. His recent project Daylight Studio / Dark Room Studio brought the literal red of the darkroom into the photographs. The color blue has presented a curious challenge for the artist before Blue Studio, as Sepuya had been experimenting with it since 2015, for his series Figures, Grounds, and Studies. An earlier collage work from 2018, Untitled (2018-048), playfully combines portions of printed images; still life flowers, figures bathed in blue light, and body parts weave a throughline in Sepuya’s practice, from his snapshot series Roses at Night (2014–ongoing) to the artist’s latest body of work. With his series of blue-tinted portraits, Sepuya confronts the rich cultural history of the color and its associations with sadness and divinity. Instead, he concentrates on blue’s meaning of the indecent and risqué. The blurry figures, at times overlapping, exist as faceless objects of lust and desire, and yet stand in for the exploration of the self and the other.

 

Paul Mpagi Sepuya (b. 1982, San Bernardino, CA) received an MFA in photography at UCLA in 2016. From 2000 – 2014 Sepuya lived and worked in New York City, receiving a BFA from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2004. He went on to participate in Artist-in-Residence programs at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the Center for Photography at Woodstock, The Studio Museum in Harlem and Fire Island Artist Residency.

Sepuya’s work is in the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, MOCA Los Angeles, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the Getty Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the ICA Boston, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the International Center for Photography, Stedelijk Museum and the Carnegie Museum, among others. Solo museum exhibitions include Double Enclosure at Fotomuseum Amsterdam (2018), Drop Scene at Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts (2020), Daylight Studio / Dark Room Studio at the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg (2022), and Exposure at Nottingham Contemporary (2024).

Paul Mpagi Sepuya: Darkroom A to Z, the artist’s most comprehensive monograph to date, will be published by Aperture in Fall 2024.