Jérôme Lagarrigue at Driscoll Babcock
By KURT MCVEY, SEPT. 3, 2014
Early in Ralph Waldo Ellison’s monumental work Invisible Man, the young central character eavesdrops on an urgent conversation between his shaken father and his dying grandfather. “Live with your head in the lion’s mouth,” the lucid old man says to his son. This particular piece, out of a string of desperate and surprising utterances, sends the youngest link in the patriarchal chain spiraling on an indisputably Homeric comedy of errors. The narrator understands that his grandfather’s advice is potentially dubious and drastically out of character. Never the less, it drastically alters his predisposed outlook on life as well as the presumed unwritten codes for young black men in America. In a similar sense, to read Ellison’s timeless novel is to submit oneself to a maelstrom of emotion and a lifetime’s worth of self-reflection and spiritual scrutiny. As much as Ellison forces the narrator to navigate a wild and winding river of complex obstacles, much like Homer’s wily Odysseus or as it’s been said, Dostoyevsky’s nameless protagonist in the ironically macabre Notes from the Underground, it’s Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn with all its “transcendent truths and possibilities” that most affectively influenced the tone and overall intention of Invisible Man. In the startling intro that accompanies the book’s 30th anniversary addition, Ellison contends that “…a novel could be fashioned as a raft of hope, perception and entertainment that might help keep us afloat as we [try] to negotiate the snags and whirlpools that mark our nation’s vacillating course toward and away from the democratic ideal.”
The same could be said for Jérôme Lagarrigue’s equally monumental solo-show, opening to the public September 4th at Driscoll Babcock Gallery, serendipitously titled Visible Man. The exhibit is a massive and timely offering to the world, built and served to the public with the confidence and well honed instincts of an author who may or may not have just written the next great American novel. Driscoll Babcock, the oldest gallery in not only New York but the nation, built its reputation on fearless contemporary American artists with similar scope and ambition, such as Asher B. Durand, Thomas Eakins, and Winslow Homer. Like Ellison’s book, originally planned as a war novel, Lagarrigue was close to exhibiting a half decade’s worth of “riot” paintings; works that feature writhing, tortuous bodies locked in an eternal struggle worthy of Gustave Doré's impossibly intricate engravings in Dante’s The Inferno. All that changed when Lagarrigue discovered (for himself at least) the radiant “albino” male model phenomenon, the highly visible Shaun Ross after a heavy night of partying at last season’s Art Basel, Miami. The two truck up a bond and now admit to being inextricably and indefinitely linked, at least artistically. Long it has been since a model-muse combination and the show it spawned exploded onto the scene with what Ellison referred to as “…a wild star-burst of metamorphosis.”
We caught up with the fierce and playful Ross and a charming and lighthearted Lagarrigue at the artist’s dreamlike studio at the magic hour on the southern most appendage of a Red Hook pier. It became apparent very quickly, that these men, alpha males of not one particular race, but that of the human strain, chose not to live with their heads in the lion’s mouth, as the narrator’s grandfather suggested, but have chosen instead to become lions themselves.
Kurt McVey: In many ways this new exhibit is more than just a gallery show, but at the same time there’s something very classical about it. At its core, you have a great portrait artist who found a great muse.
Jérôme Lagarrigue: Absolutely.
McVey: Before we get into the more complex elements, let’s hear about that first meeting.
Lagarrigue: It was the meeting itself that gave birth to this. For one, it was not in New York; it was down at Art Basel, Miami. Two, it was the morning after a night of partying and I was floating still. Three, it was completely unexpected. Shaun was walking down South Beach with some friends…
Shaun Ross: Actually, I’m pretty sure it was my ex-boyfriend. We were down there for an event with Rico Love and his wife Robin V, who’s an amazing photographer.
Lagarrigue: It was kind of foggy but for some reason I was still blinded by the sun. I was feeling awkward to say the least. It was pre-coffee, not a mess, but not far from it.
Ross: Jerome, you were with a friend right?
Lagarrigue: Yes, an art world friend and suddenly, multiple lasers just hit me. I don’t want to exaggerate, I wasn’t thinking about art at all. I’m always visually sensitive to things, but that particular moment when I saw this man and the way he reacted to light, his movements, the way he spoke, and I’m not really a shy person, but it was just stronger than me. I grabbed him and asked him to sit in front of this wall. [laughs] He was like, “You’re a painter?” I was like, “Yep.” [laughs]
McVey: So you could tell right away?
Ross: Well, not exactly. I actually met his friend the day before.
McVey: The same guy on the beach?
McVey: Who’s the friend?
Lagarrigue: Tim Okamura.
Ross: I was talking to him [Okamura] at that party. He told me he was a painter, and as a joke I said, “You should paint me.” You know how people in the industry are. He was like, “Yeah, let’s talk about it.” When I saw them on beach the next day, he struck up a conversation with my ex, and that’s when Jerome asked to take a photo of me.
Lagarrigue: I pounced like a jaguar or something. “He’s mine!”[laughs]
Ross: He definitely did. [laughs] So of course I was like, “Yeah, ok, sure, whatever. I’ll never see this man or these photos again.”
Lagarrigue: You have to understand, I had no idea who he was and that’s key. If I had known, I would have never embarked on this journey.
McVey: Why is that?
Lagarrigue: Because that’s not the type of thing I do. It’s not about the fame or this iconic figure that he’s becoming. It’s about my reaction to this person, only. I don’t want to be distracted. I’m not trying to ride someone else’s wave. I’m trying to promote my core values to some degree. It was a blessing not knowing who he was.
Ross: When did you find out?
Lagarrigue: When I showed a friend the photograph. He said, “You know who that is right? That’s Shaun Ross.” I replied that I didn’t know who he was, but that I was definitely going to paint him.
McVey: Did you rethink the whole thing?
Lagarrigue: Not at all. All the work I’ve done up to now has been based on some instinctive reaction. It might be a part of my youth or some other part of me. Actually, I’ve been painting riots for the last four or five years.
McVey: Have you shown anyone these riot paintings?
Lagarrigue: Not yet really. I might use them for my next thing.
McVey: Pretty ironic, considering what’s happening in Missouri right now.
Lagarrigue: You mean how the new civil rights are happening as the world’s going to shit?
McVey: How crazy that you instinctually turned your focus to something that, forgive me if this is off, but work that seems to be about healing and acceptance.
Lagarrigue: Beyond just the electrical impulse I felt when I saw Shaun or my desire to explore his “color” or pigment, or lack there of, it helped me reflect upon my own identity. Here I am, a “mixed” individual. My father is white-French and my mother is black-American from New York. It might be hard to believe, but these paintings are self-portraits in my mind.
McVey: I feel like that line is always blurred, for painters especially.
Lagarrigue: Shaun’s unique and we’ve talked about this; when you’re “mixed” it takes a different kind of skill set to navigate all these worlds, whether it’s school, social circles, or even your own family-a white family, a black family-there’s certain codes. If you can survive these stages and all the frustration, you can develop real strength through creative outbursts. I love to paint strong subjects. I immediately saw that strength in Shaun.
McVey: Shaun, did you always have this strength Jerome’s touching on? Was there a turning point for you as far as self-confidence goes?
Ross: I’m not a charity case. People don’t pay me because they feel bad for me. They pay me because I give them something to hold on to and it’s definitely not the negativity in my life. Some people like to tell me, “You don’t really know what it’s like to be a black man in America.” I always tell them, “Do you know what it feels like to be a black man in America who’s whiter than white?”
Lagarrigue: [laughs] And blonde.
Ross: For me, it’s like a slap, punch, and a push at the same time, when they’re just used to a slap on the ass.
McVey: When you say that people are looking for something to hold on to, are they really just trying to understand your unique perspective?
Ross: I won’t deny that I have a unique perspective in the same way that I hope Jerome doesn’t deny his expertise in not just art but life in general. I’m not so concerned with whether or not people understand my perspective, that’s something for me to try and understand. There’s nothing wrong with knowing how amazing you are. I want people to see me for how amazing I am.
Lagarrigue: I’m interested in energy that fuels a positive action. I’m most interested in Shaun’s demeanor. The only good thing about being forty-plus [laughs] is you start to trust yourself. You know your flaws. I go to sleep and I wake up as an artist, so I’m always thinking about the themes or the social commentary behind the work. How can you not? Just like Ellison, I’m not trying to trick anyone into having a reaction. I just need to get this stuff out of me.
McVey: The name of this show, Visible Man is a take on Ralph Ellison’s incredible book. When I first read The Invisible Man in college, it really shook me up. Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place really got to me as well.
Lagarrigue: I felt like that with the writings of Malcolm X.
McVey: I like how you said, “Get this stuff out of me.” I’ve been looking to return to that novel or re-examine it in a modern context, especially regarding this idea of invisibility, but it always seemed out of reach or outside my jurisdiction. I thought this idea of “privilege” was turning into it’s own a sort of invisibility, but in re-reading Ellison’s book, you realize he’s not going to give you any answers, he’s really just asking you to listen.
Lagarrigue: And listen to yourself. He’s asking you to explore your conscience, to think more deeply.
McVey: As the reader, he can make you feel like the hero or the antagonist, which can be frustrating. I really wanted to thank you because this show opened the door for me to explore that book in such an interesting, artistic way. Were you deliberately looking to tackle that book in a modern context?
Lagarrigue: Well, I was looking for a title…
Ross: Thank god it wasn’t, what was it, “Golden Child?”
Lagarrigue: [laughs] Right, or just “Shaun” I think. That was the first one. There was “Regarding Shaun.”
McVey: That sounds like a bad 90’s film.
Lagarrigue: Luckily, one day I was looking at my bookshelf and stumbled across a forty-year-old version of Ellison’s book. It was beat up and impossible to read, so I ordered a new one. At that point, I wasn’t even considering the wordplay yet. I don’t know how it possessed me. It was kind of like that first meeting with Shaun. It was about selecting moments. Each painting is a platform, and like you said, I needed to leave room for the invitation. With this title and this show, it’s the first time that I’m certain that this is all taking place right now.
McVey: Shaun, how is Jerome behind the camera?
Ross: He’s good. I know he said wanted to paint from all original content. He really made that happen.
Lagarrigue: Having such an inspiring model, you almost want to do all these complex things, and Shaun has worked with so many great photographers. I thought a lot about seasons. I thought I would instead explore light and nature, and let Shaun just inhabit the space. He naturally brings so much energy.
McVey: Shaun, do you consider yourself to be a force of nature?
Ross: Yes, I try to live like that everyday, but it’s something that I struggle with constantly. It can make things difficult with friends and lovers. I think because of that I distance myself from people. I thought there was things about life that I understood that others didn’t and that might still be true, but I’ve decided recently to just let it be.
McVey: Do you agree with the sentiment that the best way to deal with something like racism is to not talk about it or simply leave it the fuck alone?
Ross: It’s a percentage-based thing. I say this to my friends all the time. As a black man, I’m not going to keep going back on what we did or could have done. For me, I just do it. I went to school in the Bronx and I was always the lightest kid in class. Kids were coming from Jamaica, Africa; I didn’t see a white girl in school until the 4th grade. If people were about to make a joke about me, I’d say it before them. Eventually, you take pride in reflecting someone’s negativity back at them.
McVey: You owned it.
Ross: I did.
Lagarrigue: If it’s your job to study race relations or work in the improvement of communities and that’s truly your passion, and thank God for people that are actually doing that, perfect, but if you feel victimized all the time by race, I think at some point, if you want to complete the cycle or experience of being a human, there has to be moments where you not only let it be-sometimes, sometimes, you have to let it go.