Distant Relatives

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 Relativesoffers 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. As he explains, “I am trying to recreate a new family of people that I made out of nothing.” i

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 Lilian as younger woman 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 Mugshotsthat he came across by chance in 1870 and which features a vast compilation of black-and-white mug shots of small-time criminals taken between the 1960s to the XNUMXs.

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” . ii 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.” iii

As much as the mug shot is just one conceptual dimension of Distant Relativesit 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-XNUMXth century,e 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 RelativesLagarrigue 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.” iv

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, 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 v 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 XNUMXth century, e 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 ), 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’.” vi 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”. vii

Patrizia Koenig

art historian
Contemporary Art Sales Manager, Phillips, New York
September 2022


i, iii, v, vii Interview with Jérôme Lagarrigue, January 2022

ii         Francis Bacon, quote

VI        Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida




The left-hander's den

Today is a big day.

Jérôme has invited you to the 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 up 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.

Jean Lagarrigue
August 2022




Night, Landing - 2018

The mass riots of Jérôme Lagarrigue’s paintings in recent years have quelled and the focus has turned inward. Unmitigated physical expressions of psychic rage become, here, calm gazes emanating quiet ferocity. Internalized by a seismic emotional shift, riots become clashes of character, figures both flesh and fabricated, the weight of history worn like a cloak. In turning from large-scale altercation scenes to intimate portraits, Lagarrigue chose to liberate himself from what threatened to become rote. In the process of unlearning, he found different path to abstraction: taking apart his subjects, discarding all but one or two chosen elements, and reassembling them. Landscapes are invented, race is deconstructed and recreated. There is no narrative. From truth, fiction. Lagarrigue’s work has never been conventional, and in many ways these new works are even less so: simple portraits with nothing simple about them. His bold brushstrokes and violent, abstract interruptions confound precision with anarchy. His likenesses are uncanny—what should logically be a mess of oddly clashing strokes and splotches perfectly captures the friends, family, loved ones, and the odd one out in this collection: the great John Coltrane.

That he chose to paint someone he’d never met, working from a sepia photograph and portraying him in a landscape of sounds and notes and melodies translated into colors, recalls Francis Bacon’s interpretations of Van Gogh’s “Painter on the Road to Tarascon.” (Bacon had never seen the original, which was destroyed during a World War II bombing, and worked from what were likely poor-quality reproductions.) Lagarrigue’s appropriation and reinterpretation of the image of an idol, like Bacon’s, speaks loudly for the exhilarating potency of inspiration.

Though Lagarrigue shares a personal connection with his subjects, he paints them in a way that invites viewers to stumble into them, fill in the missing pieces, connect with them, rewrite their histories. Follow their gazes off the canvas into your eyes, into the world: the stories they tell belong to you.



Red Hook Sonata - 2018

With Red Hook Sonata , the artist scrutinizes and questions the soul of Brooklyn, the district where he has been living since the end of his residency program at the Villa Medicis (Rome) in 2006. In this series, which has evolved over 3 years, Jérôme Lagarrigue, through his portrayal of inhabitants or simple bystanders, anonymous or known, delivers a metaphorical portrait of the city. He often represents these people in very large formats, in a tight frame, stripped from their appearance, almost reduced to mere fragments of a face, where there only sometimes remains a trace of an expression. Expressions which lack self-awareness, which are oblivious to the act of being observed, that are absent of ego, and almost forget the artist’s presence.

These expressions represent the person in the present moment, without artifice, only absorbed in the flow of their inner thoughts. Jérôme Lagarrigue captures this most intimate part of a being, and renders visible the subtle whispering between the viewer and the model. This body of work, with its unique way of "framing" the subjects, invites to the narrative a suggestion that there is always much more that what the eyes perceive: This is the very moment where the imagination is invited to complete the 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 person met in a café, it doesn't matter, what we see escapes the limits of identity. And aims for the intimate as well as the universal.



Jérôme Lagarrigue interviewed by Federico Nicolao - October-November 2006

Federico Nicolao:

Your representation of faces makes us experiment a kind of new attitude, far from the traditional descriptions one can find in painting: as if your portraits aimed at penetrating an « elsewhere » of your characters.

Jérôme Lagarrigue: 

Jerome Lagarrigue: (…) Intimate architectures such as faces, developed on a very large scale, become a territory of encounters where I get in relation with a person seen as an architecture which I ignore myself. (…) On over-sized dimensions, the brush-strokes, a shade of tone, a move of spatula, tell us what is hidden behind what we saw a thousand times. In this spacial context, one can feel the parallel between the idea of a portrait and that of an architecture, as if it were the right direction to try and answer the dilemmas each painter is supposed to confront himself with. Like this old story of the fragile frontier between abstraction and figuration. Sometimes, as I observe the way a look, a smile, a thought or a nose appear, through brush strokes, with immense zones to fulfil, I assume that we try to give human figures to what does have any.


Photography (in your process) is only a starting point…


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 push always 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 since almost a century, new tools such as photography, cinema and satellite views allow the artist to broaden his vision and pursue his personal quest.

"Extract from an interview with the artist on the occasion of his exhibition" Paesaggiodelviso " 


Brooklintimate - 2009

This is a penetration of intimacy, raw like sex, soft like love.
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. This is the stroke of a palette knife which will create a nose or the beginning of a smile. These are spaces kept empty so that others may be filled. These are traces of vivid colors on which texture transpires. This is disparity becoming playful. These are droplets issuing from the pressure of the flesh, the weight of the muscles, the density of the dermis. This is the emerald of a fixed eye in the pink sunset, capturing the liveliness of its black eyelashes, raised like nets. This is an aroma of coffee in the morning fog. This is the linen canvas which calls upon the oil for translucence. This is a gaze which meaning builds into the face and which the green ear did not want to decipher. This is permission, if one wants to join, to enter without violence through the base of the canvas. This is the familiar echo of a glass-blower. This is a face so sweet, so basically delivered to you, that it says everything and yet nothing of humanity. This is the inhalation of a giant, sucking in his pleasure, and the small exhalation of his melancholy. This is fragmenting to show the all. 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. This is a bison in dancing slippers. This is Brooklintimate. This is Jérôme Lagarrigue.
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.
Noëlle Châtelet, March XNUMX
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 Brooklintimate.
It's Jerome Lagarrigue.

Noëlle Châtelet, preface of the catalog Brooklintimate
Paris, 2009


Boxing - 2007

Jérôme Lagarrigue seems, from the first glance, to fully reveal his nature, both infinitely complex and infinitely simple. His roots are composite: he is French and American; his education and his heart wander between two continents; he owes his artistic sensitivity to his father, Jean Lagarrigue, influenced by the latter's work, a passing of the torch took place between the two men; in turn he seems to influence his father; like Jean, he is fascinated by the gaze of men; in his painting everything becomes human, the walls of the Colosseum seem, like the world, to turn and move on themselves.
Like a tightrope walker, he constantly seeks balance and the link between these different origins which take hold of him in turn, as in a dance, which would resemble a swing or a Be Bop, which he carries in itself, both in its way of seeing, moving and speaking, as well as in its way of observing, painting and representing the world. Perhaps it is this internal rhythm which guides him, which brings together and harmonizes the different temperaments of his soul, the different points of view which animate his gaze and recomposes this colorful identity which, far from being artificial and affected, reveals itself in our eyes simple, natural, spontaneous.
The paintings that Jérôme created during his stay at the Villa Medici in 2006 were the result of a study of the human face and the gaze, in particular, in relation to the architecture and geography of the urban landscape; he prowled in the city of Rome and on the faces of the Romans, tamed them with his hypnotic movements, made portraits of them.
The Villa and the City seemed to him to be a sort of living laboratory, a constant source of inspiration, creation and freedom of expression. The result was surprising. These were portraits and landscapes made in large format, within which it was possible to discern numerous other paintings, each representing a part of the overall picture, and each done from a particular perspective: this way dominates the light, or a shadow, through this emerges a relief, or a color, one is blurred, the other contrasted, ... he seems to want to bring together each possibility in a single solution, to constantly approach and retreat from the subject to fully surround it, seek the whole in the detail and the detail in the whole, confront it almost physically to possess it, while maintaining firm contact with the gaze, the crucial starting point and fire, as in a dance or even – and precisely – a fight . Never let your guard down, never look away, follow and study the movements of every inch of the opponent's body to guess their thoughts, emotions, weak points and strength. This is, perhaps, the origin of the new series of paintings, which he presents on the occasion of this Parisian exhibition. It is a bit as if his research, which during his stay at the Villa seemed still in the excavation phase, heading towards different points, both of attraction and of reference, had finally found an exit, a more targeted target. defined.
Indeed, here he seems to have taken a step back from the heart of the action, he himself is no longer inside the fight. His perspective has changed: this time he observes the movement as a spectator – but a sometimes invisible and privileged spectator who would have access to the most hidden and intimate moments and movements, who would be entitled to a closer vision of the subject –; he scrutinizes the intersection of gazes, guesses and transcribes the pauses in breathing, the variation in heat emanating from the bodies, as well as the feelings that animate them. Once again we find a desire to penetrate the space of the canvas and make it accessible and dynamic at the same time, as if the image was not enough in itself to satisfy one's desire for understanding and representation, as if he wanted to integrate other possibilities into the discipline of painting, relating to theater and cinema. We are constantly penetrated by his intense, almost violent passion, by the features of the faces and shoulders, by his touch and his workmanship and by the choice of his colors as well as by the very singular way he has of “framing”. his subjects, extremely direct, often raw and brutal.
And at the same time, we see tenderness and kindness springing from his paintings, feelings that resemble him. In his gaze, an astonished and sincere curiosity, a very particular attention and respect for what and those he paints; far from wanting to return to us the noisy animality of the melee, he transmits to us a refined and silent image, similar to the memory we keep of a dream: the detail of an injured eye here, the white of the towel against a black neck there, the dance of two souls confronting each other in the darkness, panting and tense, clinging to each other, one against the other. The day he presented his work in the competition to become a resident at the French Academy in Rome, Jérôme was smiling; he emanated a physical energy, powerful and light, the same that we find in jazz musicians, dancers, or boxers.

Text by Richard Peduzzi and Cecilia Trombadori, Villa Medici, Rome