A look at Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s “Portraits/Positions” at KMAC | Courtesy of KMAC

On Saturday, KMAC is offering guests a chance to meet renowned artist Paul Mpagi Sepuya. The photographer’s work is featured in KMAC’s third-floor gallery in a solo exhibition titled “Portraits/Positions,” which is part of the Louisville Photo Biennial.

KMAC often ties its exhibitions together with big ideas and meditations on the nature of art and craft. While Sepuya’s work does speak to the nature of art and craft, his focus on the human form and photographs of friends and loved ones creates, for KMAC, an uncommonly intimate show.

“Self-Portrait (holding Joshua’s hand)” | Courtesy of Paul Mpagi Sepuya

Insider spoke with Sepuya by phone to try to get a glimpse of his process and a window into the thoughts that led to the images.

The work in “Portraits/Positions” was created between 2006 and 2016, and, according to Sepuya, much of it involves images that combine his subjects with other images, or portraits that are placed within the same physical space as the subject.

A person might stand in front of a framed portrait, or an image taped to a mirror might obscure the reflected face of a self-portrait.

This way of using space and portraiture evolved from his earlier work, which he said started around 2004 or ’05.

“They were all these kind of close-cropped headshots,” explained Sepuya. “So I wanted to take the opposite of environmental portraits … they were taken in my house in Brooklyn, and I was sort of isolating them against the backdrop and they were all lit in a very uniform way so they would be sort of one continuous series, rather than looking at the individual idiosyncrasies of each person.”

One of the approaches he used to make this series involved the way he looked at his subjects.

“I photographed all my friends as if they were potential lovers,” he said.

In addition to his home in Brooklyn, photos also were taken at his grandmother’s house, and the next set, to some extent, came from the way people reacted to those close portraits.

“When people were looking at that work, people were often presuming that I was making work in the studio, and it was important for me that it be understood that this was not work made in the kind of empty photographer’s white-box studio,” he said.

“Mirror Study” | Courtesy Paul Mpagi Sepuya and Yancey Richardson Gallery

The intimacy Sepuya was trying to convey was tied to the fact that he was making this work in more lived-in spaces.

“So I began to pull back and show the horizon,” said Sepuya. “The table or the bed, so they were kind of grounded.”

As he got deeper into this work, he began working in an actual studio, but stayed “pulled back” to explore the setting of the studio and how it influenced the subjects.

“In about 2010, I became interested in the studio as a space that could sort of hold and accumulate people.”

Though some of those images are pretty complex compositionally, Sepuya often doesn’t know in advance what he will end up shooting.

“When this work started, it’s not like there was any sort of foresight on the part of the sitter as to what the project was or would be come,” he said. “We were all just kind of working.”

As the work in the series continued, the space became more cluttered.

“I was shooting work and editing work, and things were in various stages of completion, and then being able to bring people in who would be sitting amid all this accumulated work in progress,” he explained. “That process let me look at any one person within the larger scheme of what was developing.”

The work also affected itself, as his subjects came to be more familiar with his ongoing project — and sometimes with each other.

“And suddenly there are images to be seen that might proceed any subject or any friend coming to sit for the work,” said Sepuya. “Any friend who is going to participate in the project … brings the images they’ve seen, brings their own relationships to other subjects.”

“Figure/Ground Study” | Courtesy Paul Mpagi Sepuya and Yancey Richardson Gallery

All of these layers of relationships, intimacy and space pile up, leaving the viewer to unpack or dissect at her leisure, but the immediate effect is somewhere between a visceral response to the familiarity and the mind’s quixotic need to begin that unpacking.

Sepuya will talk more about his work on Saturday, Nov. 4, at 3:30 p.m. “Paul Sepuya: Portraits/Positions” continues through Nov. 12, and the artist’s work also is included in “Victory Over the Sun: The Poetics and Politics of Eclipse,” on view through Dec. 3 in the second floor gallery.

KMAC is located at 715 W. Main St. Museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m., and Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

This story has been updated.

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Eli Keel
Eli Keel is “pretty much” a Louisville native. You may have seen him around town reading poetry, short stories, dancing or acting. He’s a passionate locavore, so you may have also seen him stuffing his face at one of Louisville’s amazing restaurants. When he isn’t too busy writing short stories, he blogs at amanwalksintoablog.wordpress.com.