Our notion of family is a peculiar thing. « Blood is thicker than water,” the proverb goes, implying that familial bonds will always be stronger than those of friendship or romance. Yet much in our lived human experience of kin eludes clarity. Ties loosen and memories fade with each successive generation, ultimately raising the question: how much can we know about those who came before us? Which stories are truly received, and which are invented? What truly binds you to someone you’ve never met?
Jerome Lagarrigue’s ongoing series Distant Relatives offers an intriguing lens to consider this web of questions. In his over two-decade career, the New York-based painter has explored a breadth of subject matter–his paintings of riots notably garnered attention from the Brooklyn Museum, which has since acquired a work–yet only in recent years did he begin exploring arguably the most personal of all: family, and all the ways in which it is constructed. Lagarrigue initially turned to his immediate family, resulting in a tender series of portraits of his mother, his father, and his son. With Distant Relatives, Lagarrigue has expanded his focus. As he explains, “I am trying to recreate a new family of people that I made out of nothing.”
Described by Lagarrigue as his most conceptual and ambitious body of work to date, Distant Relatives sees him probe the notion of relation in the most expanded sense of the term. Comprised of mostly large-scale portraits of single figures, dressed in the formal attire of another day and age, the series presents itself akin to an ancestral gallery as if seen through the haze of memory. Relishing in a sense of painterly indeterminacy, Lagarrigue paints his imagined kin into being: larger-than-life characters emerge from swathes of paint like ghostly specters from the past, refracted into the present through a kaleidoscopic array of color. Whereas Lagarrigue’s subjects were previously identified via specific titles such as Lillian as younger woman (Mother), in Distant Relatives they notably remain unknown.
Lagarrigue is a painter who embraces photography for the visual power and intensity it offers, utilizing it as a “departure, a friend” to make up an entirely new story. Throughout his career, he has been drawn to images complicated by history; images that operate within specific spheres of representation, but whose unique meaning and emotional heft can just as easily be blurred. The starting point for Distant Relatives was notably not the personal repository of old photographs that had initially triggered Lagarrigue’s broader interest in the theme of family. Rather, it was the photo book The Least Wanted: A Century of American Mugshots that he came across by chance in 2018 and which features a vast compilation of black-and-white mug shots of small-time criminals taken between the 1870s to the 1960s.
That these mug shots prompted a series as personal as Distant Relatives is perhaps somewhat unusual. Yet for an artist as sensitive to the hidden narratives of the human condition as Lagarrigue, they provided a fertile ground. When speaking of his artistic influences–Rembrandt, Lucian Freud, and Egon Schiele, among others–Lagarrigue returns most often to Francis Bacon, who once stated, « I’ve always been haunted by [photographs]; I think it’s the slight remove from fact, which returns me onto the fact more violently”. Like Bacon, who sought to create “images that are a shorthand of sensation”, Lagarrigue seeks to create “impressions”; paintings that are as immediate and visceral to the viewer as their subjective experience of the world around them.
Through this lens, the mug shots at once offered Lagarrigue a pallet of deeply felt snapshots of the human psyche, and a ready assembly of semi-anonymous characters he could re-configure as distant family. The first painting of the series, One Day I’ll Tell You, 2018, was fittingly based on the book’s front cover: Lagarrigue cites the tightly cropped format by similarly foregrounding the man’s upper body, depicting him with the same tilted bowler hat that casts a dark shadow over his face. Lagarrigue transforms the black-and-white image with lush, saturated, color–rendering the man’s light shirt a bright red, his white skin in rich shades of brown.
In these paintings, Lagarrigue depicts the figures as Black, whether or not they present as such in the source imagery. The depiction of Black figures in his practice is, and has been, an intentional decision for Lagarrigue since emerging as a figurative painter in the 1990s. When discussing these politics of representation, he notably emphasizes that the question for him always has been less about the “why”, than the “why not”: why not depict figures that look like yourself, your friends, your family? With Distant Relatives, Lagarrigue paints figures which he imagines as distant family, people he would admire and respect. He notably adds that these are also people others would believe to be related to him–an aspect that adds a powerful dimension to the series when considering his biography.
Born in Paris in 1973, Lagarrigue is the child of a Black, American, mother and a white, French, father. Raised in Paris with summers spent in New York City, Lagarrigue grew up between the two cultures and distinct family settings (his parents separated when he was young). There is an underlay of nuance and fluidity to this being in the world–somehow neither here nor there. And yet, in the United States, Americans have had the option to identify with more than one race only since 2000. It is telling that Lagarrigue raises the topic of race in conversation only to emphasize that its very notion is fabricated. As he poignantly states, « I’m a Black person because of the way society treats me.
As much as the mug shot is just one conceptual dimension of Distant Relatives, it is an important one in the way it connects to the reductivist modes of thinking that has structured much of the society we live in. Despite its putatively objective gaze (the mug shot itself does not establish a crime was committed), there is perhaps no other visual framework that so categorically and consequentially re-casts a person as deviant. The mugshot is also a powerful expression of state-sanctioned racial profiling. Up until the mid-20th century, arrested individuals in the United States were denied the right to indicate their own racial identity; instead, this was determined by the law enforcement officer through a variety of subjective perceptions and unscientific rules, including traces of “black blood”. Victim or villain? Black or white? With Distant Relatives, Lagarrigue suggests that at the end of the day, it’s all relative.
Drawing from a place of deep vulnerability, Lagarrigue harnesses the act of painting to challenge the notion of fixed, binary, notions of the self. Abstraction, “and the departure from reality,” Lagarrigue has stressed, « transcends race like a drone that continuously goes up and up. Lagarrigue has always chased a looseness of execution in his practice, but especially in this new body of work we see a heightened sense of “letting go”. These works are perhaps his most abstract to date; in many cases, such as Untitled (1), 2020, the backgrounds alone represent abstract paintings in their own right.
Walking the tightrope between representation and abstraction, Lagarrigue simultaneously memorializes and distorts his source imagery through painting. He speaks of his process as a form of visual and emotional collage, one that transcends the specificity of his photographic source material through an intuitive approach to painting. An adept colorist, Lagarrigue considers the photographs’ black-and-white scheme as providing him with the freedom to make up color as he paints.
There is a remarkable push-and-pull to these canvases as Lagarrigue’s deliberate brushstrokes equally build and blur the figures’ features. Shifting in and out of focus, the protagonists in Distant Relatives seem caught in states of flux as they at once emerge from, and recede into, fields of paint. Simultaneously, flashes of non-representational color jolt across the canvas akin to noise on a color television. The resulting portraits are imbued with indeterminacy, capturing at once the fluidity of our existence and the notion of remembrance. It is as if Lagarrigue is painting the past into the present within a vivid spectrum of colors, only to then obscure the figures with painterly gestures as if clouding clear recollection. “Memory,” as Lagarrigue underscores, “is at the heart of everything” for him : as hazy, slippery and imperfect as it is, it remains the way in which we experience the world around us.
Visiting Lagarrigue’s studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn over the course of several months, I’m struck each time by the two black-and-white print-outs pinned to the wall. At first I thought they were vernacular reference photos, dating perhaps from the early 20th century, until Lagarrigue told me they were in fact taken on his parents’ wedding day in 1973. Dressed in the retro fashion of the time, which incorporated Victorian-era sartorial references, his parents appear as if from another era.
Here, I am reminded of Roland Barthes’ essay La Chambre claire (Camera Lucida), which he begins by describing a childhood picture of his late mother. While of great significance to Barthes, he refuses to reveal the photograph to the reader. “It exists only for me,” he writes. “For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the ‘ordinary’.” A photograph also sharpens awareness of all that has ceased to be—Barthes spoke of its “having-been-present” quality—and, by extension, of all that will cease to be.
This acute present-turning-past fascinates Lagarrigue, who is drawn to old photographs not for nostalgia’s sake, but for the way in which they defy clarify and definition. Lagarrigue, as keeper of his family’s living memory, imparts his parents’ wedding photograph with its meaning; for others, its emotional significance and historical specificity will likely remain just as elusive as that of any other imagery.
With Distant Relatives, Lagarrigue crucially turns to imagery of strangers to give form to his imagined family tree; partly, he explains, because their anonymity offers him a clean slate to make up a story. He has recently also started using historic vernacular photography of unknown sitters as a point of departure. In “Two Brothers”, 2022, for example, Lagarrigue has patched together disparate portraits to re-imagine two strangers as brothers within an interior setting–hinting at greater narrative impulse to come as Lagarrigue’s project continues to expand in its repertoire of inspirations and ambitions.
Lagarrigue’s choice of turning to abandoned, forgotten, people reflects a deeply humanistic impulse, an implicit recognition that they were once beings in their own right. There is something especially poignant about anonymous photographs from a different era: they confront us with the prospect that we, too, may become obscure specters in the eyes of future strangers, related or unrelated, as context vanishes and generations are flattened. Lives lived until they are forgotten, but for the traces we leave behind.
Lagarrigue explores this nexus of identity, family history, and memory with a remarkable depth of feeling and nuance, creates new stories that continue to unfold in the viewer’s imagination. As he emphasizes, it is through painting that he seeks to capture the « nuance, complexities, and mysteries of people’s passages—meaning, that it’s not all that clear. It’s not all black and white”.
Head of contemporary art sales, Philips, New York
The left-hander’s den
Today is a big day.
Jérôme has invited you to his workshop.
It starts with a very long corridor. Endless.
Every twenty meters you pass a stone portico with a large white number stenciled on it: B1, B2, and so on.
Jérôme walks with a determined step. You trot along behind him.
Your steps echo on the dark green tiles.
You have arrived. He opens the door. You sneak in after him.
He pulls the lock closed.
You are in the left-hander’s den.
There are two old sofas at a right angle. This is the space you assign yourself. A mountain of books piled up on a coffee table blocks you off from the rest of the workshop.
You will be well out of his way back here.
While Jérôme carries out a few routine tasks, you consider the vast space, the two bay windows that let in the light, the two opposing picture rails, the apparent disorder, the salvaged industrial serving trolleys on castors, the tripods, the canvases. The ones that look at you and the ones he has turned to the wall.
On the left, an easel stands sideways to you. All you can see of the canvas is its edge and its vertical row of nails.
He approaches, starts to paint.
With his left arm perpendicular to the canvas he makes mysterious movements, as if fencing.
He is a gentle giant, a big guy, delicately held together.
He moves lightly. A perforated black rubber mat cushions his step.
He moves towards the canvas. Moves away from it. Tilts his head. Contemplates. Assesses.
Negotiation: the canvas offers. He accepts. Or refuses.
Respectful of their dialogue, you lose yourself in your book.
Minutes and hours go by.
He is nice, he has put some music on for you. Coltrane.
Or the news. CNN.
The session ends.
You won’t say anything about the painting in progress. You have forbidden yourself from making any comment. Unless he asks.
Night has fallen. While he rinses his brushes in a deep metal sink you look out of the window.
New York Bay.
Long black barges pass each other by.
The Lady of the Bay’s torch has been lit.
Nothing of the left-hander’s dance has escaped her grey-green eye.
A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, which in 2017 devoted an important solo exhibition to him, and former resident of the Villa Medicis – Académie de France in Rome, Lagarrigue develops a work that questions several deep questions not only of contemporary art but also of civil society, American in this case, and the place it reserves for the African-American community.
If the artist has always chosen human representation as a medium for his plastic research, the stake of his painting is situated well beyond figuration – a vision that has been too hackneyed in recent years – to dig into the very intimate and try to confront the particular with the universal. The majority of her models are from the African-American community in New York, and most often live in Brooklyn. The artist builds a gallery of portraits, most often of unknowns, as a taxonomy of the human race: it is as much a question of observing and characterizing the population that surrounds him as of emphasizing his place and his role in the society. “A geology of faces as a tribute – powerful and loving – to mankind”, wrote the scenographer and former director of the Villa Medicis Richard Peduzzi.
Jerome Lagarrigue’s work has been exhibited in 2016 at the National Portrait Gallery in London as part of the BP Awards and is present in many international collections such as the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
The artist lives and works in Brooklyn and Paris; he is represented by the Olivier Waltman gallery (Paris | London | Miami).
The gallery is pleased to present the fifth exhibition in France dedicated to Franco-American painter Jerome Lagarrigue.
With Red Hook Sonata, the artist scrutinizes and questions the soul of Brooklyn, the neighborhood where he lives since he left Villa Medicis, in 2006. In this series matured for three years, Jérôme Lagarrigue gives us a metaphorical portrait of the city through a series of portraits of inhabitants or simple passersby, anonymous or known.
He often represents these individuals in very large formats, in tight framing, stripped of their appearance, almost reduced to a fragment of a face whose only gaze sometimes persists. A look that thinks of something other than the pause to take, which does not impose an ego and forgets the painter. A look that represents the person as such at the present moment, without artifice, only absorbed in the flow of his interior thoughts. Jérôme Lagarrigue captures this most intimate part of a being, suspended in the moment and delivers it to us like a whisper between the spectator and the model. The painter’s works, by his singular way of « framing » his subject, invite narration and offer a suggestion where everything is not given to see; where the imagination is required to form the complete picture.
The geology of the faces, such is the central motive of the work of Jérôme Lagarrigue. In 2006, his exhibition at the Académie de France in Rome was already titled Paesaggio del viso (landscape of the face). From 2007, the Olivier Waltman Gallery followed him in the deployment of this motif by dedicating four solo exhibitions, Boxing, Portraits, Brooklintimate et Closer. Whether it’s the face of a black or a white, a boxer or a model, a self-portrait or an anonymous met in a cafe, whatever, what we see is beyond the limits of the identity. And aims the intimate as the universal.
Excerpts from an interview with the artist during his exhibition «Paesaggio del viso» at the Villa Medici’s in Rome (September-October, 2006)
Federico Nicolao: Your representation of faces lets the view experience a new kind of attitude – far from the traditional description one can find in a painting: as if your portraits are aimed at penetrating an «elsewhere» of your characters.
Jerome Lagarrigue: (…) Intimate architecture of a face developed on a very large scale, becomes a territory of encounters – zooming in on details that are typically ignored on a day-to-day basis. (…) On an over-sized scale, the brush-strokes, the shades of color, the moves of a spatula, bring forward what is hidden behind of something we saw a thousand times. In this spacious context, the viewer can feel the parallel between the idea of a portrait and that of architecture – as if it were the right direction to try and answer the dilemmas each painter is supposed to confront with. Like this old story of the fragile frontier between the abstract and figurative.
F.N.: Photography (in your process) is only a starting point…
J.L. : One thing which I particularly like is using printed materials or their equivalent on a computer screen in order to fragment the portraits I paint. Division and fragmentation of the model are an aspect which has always been worth of interest and new technologies seem to always push more in this direction: watching deep within the substance of the subject. Artists have always been motivated by a desire to free themselves from a necessity to stick to reality but, paradoxically, for almost a century, new tools such as photography, cinema and satellite views allow artists to broaden their vision and pursue new personal quests.
This is a penetration of intimacy, raw like sex, soft like love.
This is a thief, a hunter, a fierce detective of reality just as it slips away.
This is a cap man whose cannibal ear swallows you in a black, deep abyss and stares at you like an eye at the end of the night.
This is a back and forth between the small and the large. A tonic journey to disproportion.
This is a junkyard where, under white slime and yellow pus you find maybe eyes, ears or cut fingertips.
This is immoderation becoming passion.
This is watching oneself to discover the other.
This is watching the other to understand oneself.
This is a woman, seated as if she was not in movement. A woman silent as if she was not speaking, legs crossed high in the blue of things.
This is Rome, always present, and Balthus at the end of the garden.
This is a method of advance and retreat. An oscillation against proximity and distance. An incessant movement in understanding what a body speaks.
These are two legs, two arms, two feet, two hands. An interlacing of limbs which tell more than a look.
This is black, this is white, the collision of opposites, without frustration.
It’s a cap-man whose cannibal ear sucks you into a deep, black chasm and stares at you like an eye in the depths of the night.
It is a dump where under the white drool and the yellow pus of decomposition you may find eyes, ears or fingertips cut.
It is immoderation become passion.
It is to observe oneself to discover the other.
It is to observe the other to understand oneself.
She is a seated woman if she was not moving. A silent woman if she did not speak, her legs crossed high in the blue of things.
It’s Rome, always there, and Balthus at the bottom of a garden.
It’s a way of moving forward and backward. An oscillation against proximity and distance. An incessant movement to know what a body means.
It’s a spatula that will make a nose or the beginning of a smile.
These are empty spaces for others to be full.
These are traces of bright colors for the material to transpire.
It’s the disparity that has become playful.
They are degoulinades coming from the pressure of the flesh, the weight of the muscles, the density of the dermis.
It is the emerald of an immobile eye in the sunset rose that captures the living of its black eyelashes, erectile like nets.
It’s a coffee smell in the mists of the morning.
It is linen that calls oil for transparency.
It is a look that is constructed to give meaning to the face that the green ear did not want to give.
It is the permission, for those who want to join him, to enter without violence at the bottom of the painting.
It’s the familiar echo of a glassblower.
It is a face so sweet, so fundamentally delivered to you that it says everything and yet nothing of humanity.
It is the aspiration of a giant pulling on his pleasure and the tiny expiration of melancholy.
It’s fragmenting to show the whole thing.
They are two legs, two arms, two feet, two hands. An interlacing of members who speak better than a look.
It’s a black, it’s a white, the shock of opposites, without annoyance.
It’s a buffalo in dance shoes.
It’s Jerome Lagarrigue.
Noëlle Châtelet, preface of the catalog Brooklintimate
At first hand, Jérôme Lagarrigue seems to fully reveal his infinitely complex and yet infinitely simple nature. His roots are composite: he is French and American, his education and *spirit roaming freely between two continents. He owes his artistic sensibility to his father, Jean Lagarrigue, whose work is a great influence. The two now seem to be passing the torch back and forth, Jerome in return influencing his father, with whom he shares a fascination for what lies in the depths of a man’s glance.
Everything in his painting becomes tinged with humanity, the walls of the Coliseum seemingly turning and revolving around themselves, much like the Earth itself. In the manner of a tightrope walker, Jérôme is constantly seeking out the balance and bond linking the different origins emanating from him, which dance to the sound of swing or be-bop and can be sensed as much in his vision as in his way of moving, speaking, observing, painting and portraying the world.
Perhaps it is this internal rhythm that guides him along, bringing his soul’s temperaments together in harmony, the various viewpoints livening his gaze and assembling the vivid identity that is his, which far from being artificial and contrived is revealed to us as something quite straightforward, natural and spontaneous.The paintings created by Jerome during his stay at the Villa Médicis in 2006 were the result of his study of the human face, and more particularly that which resides in the eyes of men, in relation to the architecture and the geography of the urban landscape; he roamed the city of Rome and the Romans’ faces, tamed them through his hypnotic movements, painted their portraits.
The Villa and the city were somewhat of a live working laboratory to him, a constant source of inspiration, creation and freedom of expression. The result was stunning; larger-than-life sized portraits and landscapes, each containing several paintings within, each piece part of a larger ensemble of work and yet all stemming from a different perspective: the emphasizing of light or of shadow, of depth perception or color, blurredness here and contrast there… he seems to want to gather together all possibilities in one single solution, constantly approaching and then backing away from his subject as if to better grasp it, searching for everything in a detail and the detail in everything, practically physically confronting his subject as if to possess it while constantly maintaining eye contact, as if in dance, or even and precisely so, in combat.
To never let one’s guard down, to never look away, to scrutinize the opponent’s slightest of moves in order to guess his/her thoughts, emotions, weaknesses as well as the forces that will him/her to exist.This may be the origin of the new series of paintings that Jérôme will be showing in his Parisian exhibition. It’s as if his search, which during his stay at the Villa Médicis was still in an exploratory phase and moving in different directions of attraction and sanctum, has finally found its true course and a more defined objective. He seems to have taken a step back from the heart of the action, no longer residing in the midst of combat, his perspective having changed to that of invisible and privileged spectator to the most intimate and hidden moments, and movements. Jérôme’s vision has moved closer to the subject at hand, poring over passing glances, perceiving and transcribing a pause for breath, the variations of heat emanating from the flesh, as well as the feelings that bring it to life. There is once again the longing to penetrate the canvas’ space and render it accessible as well as vibrant, as if the image itself isn’t enough on its own to satisfy his desire for understanding and portrayal, as if he wants to incorporate other possibilities to the painting such as theater or film.
We are constantly penetrated by the intense and even violent passion of his work, the faces’ and shoulders’ features, his touch and workmanship as well as his choice of colors and very unique way of “framing” his subjects, extremely forthright and often stark and brutal. And yet, there is always a strong sense of tenderness and goodness in his paintings, feelings that resemble his true nature. In the depth of his own eyes can be found an element of surprised and sincere curiosity, detailed attention to and a particularly profound respect for that which, and those whom he paints. Far from conveying the rambunctious animality of hand-to-hand combat, he chooses to transmit a spare and silent image, just like the memories one has of a dream: the detail of a wounded eye, the white of a towel against a dark nape, the choreography of two souls facing each other in the dark: breathless and tense, fastened together, skin on skin.
The day he presented his work to the Academy of France in order to become a resident, Jérôme was smiling; a powerful yet light physical energy, also to be found in jazz musicians, dancers and boxers, sprang from within him.
Text by Richard Peduzzi & Cecilia Trombadori, Villa Médicis, Roma