From New York to Ferguson, from Liberia to Texas, how race is embodied and experienced continues to explode into our global conversation. The issue is everything but black and white, as our complex histories are encoded in our skin, our hair, our words, our movements. Black albino model Shaun Ross exemplifies these contradictions and complexities: he is an openly gay black man with blonde hair and white skin who makes his living in one of the most insular, elitist fields we know. He happened to meet French-American painter Jerome Lagarrigue in Miami and the two have created a unique and remarkable collaboration. In Lagarrigue’s new exhibition “Visible Man” at the Driscoll Babcock Gallery in New York City, he focuses on Ross as a subject. Lagarrigue’s paintings evoke light and dark, man and nature, they pull at notions of race, of beauty. They are everything but the expected. Through their art, Ross and Lagarrigue are centering the too often invisible, asserting not only visibility but beauty, worth, humanity and transcendence.
What drew you to Ross as a subject initially? How has this understanding changed over your work together?
I initially met Shaun Ross last November during Art Basel in front of a Hotel Lobby one morning on South Beach. I had no idea who he was. I managed to shoot a quick snapshot of him in front of a blue wall. We barely exchanged any words, but somehow he assumed that I was a painter. I was drawn to Shaun’s unique beauty, his proportions, the way his skin reacted to light on that sunny morning. As a portrait artist I tend to be seduced by subjects that stimulate the possibility of psychological reflections on topics ranging from humanity, race, gender, love, pain. Shaun is the embodiment of all of these topics.
What is your relationship with Ross like? Are you friends, or is it strictly an artistic and aesthetic relationship?
Shaun and I developed an intimate friendship during our collaboration. We worked very closely together for a couple of months. I really wanted to get to know him, and it turns out that we have a lot in common. I tend to do my best work when I feel close to a subject, which in a sense, reminds me of the traditional interaction between muse and artist. I hope that “Visible Man” represents only the 1st chapter of our collaboration.
Is there power in painting the same subject over and over? How does it challenge you as an artist? Does it force the audience to recognize subtle differences between the same subject that they might miss between different subjects?
I approached this series of paintings as I imagined directing a film. Each painting is meant to exist as a portal for the viewer to jump through. Each painting could be perceived as a moment, a chapter or scene, as part of a larger story. Although I don’t visualize my work as being overtly narrative, moments depicted in this series were carefully selected to provoke specific emotional responses in people: happiness, pain, hope, and finally transcendence.
What does your work say about race in America in 2014? In the world? Were the political ramifications – here we have a black man with white skin who is deeply embedded in the fashion world as we watch black men with dark skin being shot on the street, over and over, by police – a part of your consideration? Or was it initially aesthetic?
Painting Shaun has been a revelation for me. Aesthetically, Shaun, a white looking African American openly gay man with blond hair, exposes, in part, the subtleties, complexities, and contradictions associated with the notion of race, identity, and prejudice in society. Shaun is a multi layered complex individual. He has become an inspiring iconic figure. In turn, I hope that these portraits successfully encourage the viewer to confront their preconceived notion of beauty and race.
Is it Ross’ white skin that renders him the ‘Visible Man’, even though he is black? Or are you rendering him visible by painting him repeatedly? How are you in conversation with Ellison, since you reference him explicitly?
It is equally Shaun’s albinism and confident demeanor that render him the Visible Man in my opinion. I am appalled at the treatment of Albinos around the world. Albinos have often been vilified in writing as well as in film, ostracizedm and even killed for supposedly possessing magical healing powers in their limbs in certain parts of the world. After having decided on the title of the exhibit, I read Ellison’s masterpiece “Invisible Man” while working on these paintings. The nameless character in Ellison’s book survives a multitude of complicated situations before seeing himself elected the voice of an entire community. I see a parallel between Ellison’s main character and Shaun’s life. Shaun has managed to overcome many obstacles in his life before becoming the universal symbol of inspiration and supermodel he now is.
Both biblical and natural imagery and words are invoked by your work. Were you attempting to breakdown the binary between man and nature with “Entre Chien et Loup” and “Le Cri” which feels beyond human, neither animalistic nor human but yet somehow universal? How do race and whiteness enter into this conversation between man, nature, and religion?
The biblical connotations found in the work are purely accidental. In “Entre Chien et Loup” I decided to portray Shaun at twilight because it represented the part of day/night when one still can still see daylight but the sun is no longer visible, echoing the perception of an Albino African American man who’s skin color is lighter than most whites. I wanted to position Shaun in a setting that accompanied his complexity. The French expression “Entre Chien et Loup” suggests the moment of day when one can no longer differ a dog from wolf.
What has the response been to the work? How did Ross respond?
The work is receiving a lot of media attention. Shaun is an art aficionado, He seems to have truly appreciated my attempt in depicting him.
What are you working on currently? What’s next?
I am currently working on a series of paintings entitled “ The Tipping Point” on the theme of rioting. I began working on this series in 2012 before I started painting Shaun. The recent events in Ferguson will be depicted in this series.