Paul Mpagi Sepuya, 'Recent Pictures/A Journal'
At Clough-Hanson Gallery, Rhodes College, through Feb. 13. Call 901-843-3442.
The truth is that beauty and truth are not synonymous, however beautifully John Keats made that assertion, and as far as the visual arts go, artists gave up on beauty long ago, say around 1915, when the cream of the English public schools lay decaying in the muddy trenches of northern France.
The 20th century taught us that there is beauty in the mundane, in the inexpressive and eccentric, even in the horrific. But fashion photographers, ad agencies and magazine art directors picked up the gantlet, and nowadays you can see more of what used to be called beauty in television commercials and fashion and design magazines than in most art galleries.
Except at Rhodes College's Clough-Hanson Gallery, where New York artist Paul Mpagi Sepuya has an exhibition, "Recent Pictures/A Journal" of quite — hold your breath — beautiful, and deeply ambiguous, photographs, on display through Feb. 15. Almost my favorite element of the exhibition is its title, four simple words, divided equally by a slash mark, that are completely without bias, nuance or implication. "See," Sepuya seems to say, "here are some of my friends, and here are some of the places I've been. Nothing more than that, just a record."
Indeed, these 18 works are intimate and personal, a journal without words that captures our attention as much by its lack of reference and specificity as by its gorgeous images of beautiful young men, along with a couple of interiors (one a still-life) and one exterior. One of these interior shots, "Stefano and Vivien," and the exterior, "Window Cat," express the — let's say it again — beautiful and melancholy state found only in stately yet shabby 18th and early 19th century buildings in provincial French or Spanish towns.
There is about the male portraits in "Recent Pictures/A Journal" an element of erotic scrutiny, friendly yet slightly detached, as a friend would look at another and an artist looks in a detached way at a subject. The "male gaze," with its denotation of objectifying the female, has been a dominant theme in feminist art, film and cultural criticism since the 1960s. Does the same notion apply to a "male gaze" directed to another male?
A gulf of attitude, status and dominance has always yawned between male and female in most cultures, but there exists in the homosexual realm a sense of community or camaraderie fostered by secretiveness, accepted codes, dress and behavior that turned inward protectively. The gaze manifested by Sepuya in these pieces — he took up photography as a gay teenager to combat his shyness — is both tender and artistic; the images are recordings of beautiful, even glamorous, moments in time as well as tracings of attraction and desire.
Yes, the images do at times, as in "Guillaume," whom most men, gay or straight would die to look like, approach the slickness of fashion magazine advertising; we wouldn't be surprised if Guillaume wore on the wrist that shades his face a discreet but costly luxury timepiece. Yet, overall, the exhibition chronicles, with painterly lushness and marvelous detail, chapters in a journey, like something out of Proust, of perpetual vacation and ease and beneficent heat.