Four painters on the complexities of categorization via nationality, race, and subject.
Boxing, like painting, is made up of both small jabs and broad strokes. At the Art Directors Club in New York in May, “Round Zero” showcased the work of four artists—Jerome Lagarrigue, Joe Adolphe, Tim Okamura, and Taha Clayton—inspired by boxing. Dexter Wimberly, curator of “Round Zero,” called it “a primal, atavistic presentation of figurative painting, steeped in pain and sacrifice.”
In Jerome Lagarrigue’s close ups, the paint seems to drip off of the canvas like sweat, evoking the intensity of a gaze or the strain of a muscle. This intensity appears in Joe Adolphe’s large, closely cropped portraits, which are fractured into pieces, visually resembling shards of glass. Taha Clayton’s paintings are more intimate in size and range from fight scenes to central, locked images of a black fist raised in the air. Boxing, hip-hop, and references to historical art come together in the motionless, proud figures in Tim Okamura’s work.
I met with the artists at the Art Directors Club gallery days before their show. We discussed perceptions of their work, how perception relates to identity, and what it means to be an American artist—or if that means anything at all.
—Haniya Rae for Guernica
Guernica: What do you think it means to be an American painter?
Tim Okamura: We’re all kind of transplants, aren’t we? I’m Canadian, originally. I’ve been here half my life, half Canadian and half New Yorker. I’ve been influenced by walking down the street and seeing graffiti, as well as by street culture. Both of those things collided when I arrived here. I was always interested in hip-hop; in Canada I had a hip hop radio show and had started painting my hip-hop heroes. Those heroes were African American. I painted African Americans and other ethnic minorities, but it never occurred to me that it would be a conceptual thing, based on my own skin color and background. It became an issue that people had to wrap their heads around.
Taha Clayton: I’m a dual citizen from Canada. My influences in painting are European, but I don’t see it as American painters versus European painters. Subject matter is irrelevant; it’s art.
Guernica: So white, male canonical painters don’t have a bearing on how you think about your work?
Taha Clayton: It means nothing to me. I see that they’re the majority. But it doesn’t change—
Tim Okamura: My contemporary experience is distinct from the experience of my heroes in painting from sixteenth-century Europe.
Jerome Lagarrigue: But when you think of American painting, do you associate that with race? American painting encompasses so many various origins, all under one roof. I share Taha’s perspective: painting is painting.
Joe Adolphe: If I were to answer that question in terms of what shapes you, I’d say that what’s great about America is that it’s so wide open. One of the big barriers that we experience as contemporary painters is that there’s a classically trained academic system, and then the other school is wide open.
Tim Okamura: I would say it depends on the sphere you’re operating within and the context of your own exposure to the art world within New York. We often go with the successful element of what I’ll call the “black art scene” in New York. Many of those artists deal with race in their work, whether they are painters or they do conceptual work. For me, that’s a part of American painting, dealing with identity.
Taha Clayton: That’s the American experience, through music, through art, through anything.
Jerome Lagarrigue: But there’s a quiet pressure, in my experience, since I started illustrating…
Tim Okamura: A quiet pressure on you?
Jerome Lagarrigue: One of the drawbacks is that if you talk about race in art, especially if race is not necessarily your primary focus, your work has to fall into a specific box that people feel comfortable with in order to understand the piece. If you willingly address race politics in art, that’s absolutely fine. But people have a hard time letting you navigate… it’s destabilizing. In my days illustrating children’s books, I learned a lot about part of my history illustrating black horse jockeys winning the derby. But after a while I’d talk to my editors and I’d ask, “Can I work on a story about Martians? Or peripheral activity near Jupiter?” and the response was, “Yeah, well we don’t feel too comfortable with that.”
Tim Okamura: As a black man, they only give you black stories?
Jerome Lagarrigue: Yes. And it’s incredibly limiting.
Guernica: Do galleries put you into this box?
Jerome Lagarrigue: Well, that I don’t know yet. My gallery is in France. It hasn’t happened in the United States yet.
Tim Okamura: It’s something Jerome and I have talked about. If you’re consistently painting large portraits of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, you’d be playing into all the expectations that everyone wants you to embrace. If you’re a black artist dealing with non-black issues, however, that throws people for a loop. Or if you’re a non-black artist dealing with black issues. People are mentally lazy and they want to draw the shortest line between two points.
Taha Clayton: I had a buddy that came to one of my shows and said, “Taha, you paint a lot of black people, eh?” I asked him if he would he ever make that comment to one of our white friends that paints white people. When it comes to the black experience, people always want it to be historic and cover certain issues as opposed to, “Well, I’m going to paint a comedy here” or, “I’m going going to paint some kids in the park.” Black is not just one thing.
Guernica: Why choose portraiture and not other subject matter?
Joe Adolphe: Mark Rothko said that what makes a great painting is a combination of romanticism, tragedy, and a preoccupation with death. There is portraiture in my work for this exhibition, but it’s because it applies to my central theme. That combination of romanticism and tragedy is the story of boxing. It’s Muhammad Ali’s life. I didn’t paint a black man, I painted a man. And those are the themes that interest me. At the end of the day, I look at painting for painting’s sake. It’s about color and shape and composition. And that’s the language of the painter as opposed to the content.
Guernica: So when you were asked to do the show, was it because everyone was painting this subject matter?
Joe Adolphe: It took place before the show even took shape. We all had a common interest in boxing as a subject. It became a larger metaphor for life, and how you have to fight. In contemporary life, the god is security and comfort. That’s the American drive. I believe the leading cause of death in America is mediocrity, and biting off too little in life. If you’re going to be a painter or a boxer, security and comfort have to be left aside.
Guernica: As a group of companions, is there any competitiveness between you? Especially in New York?
Joe Adolphe: Under the surface, there’s probably the thought of, “Aw man, what did he do?” but at the end of the day, we need one of us, or all of us, to succeed. It really is the painter against the world, just like the boxer against everyone else. If you start letting the negative thinking in it will sabotage you. And there are so many reasons to be negative. That’s why we go to openings. You don’t want to go to openings as the painter. The unhappiest person at an opening is always the painter; you can tell they’re suffering their way through it. But you go there because you have to support your friend through this horrible event.
Born in 1973 to a French father and an American mother, Jerome Lagarrigue was raised in Paris. He moved to the United States in 1992 and graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1996. He has received several awards for his work, including the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award and the Ezra Jack Keats Award (2002). In 2005, he was one of the recipients of the grant and residency program at Villa Medici in Rome. At the end of his stay, he held a solo exhibition in the villa’s main gallery, entitled “Paesaggio del Viso” (Landscapes of the Face). In 2007 he collaborated with celebrated African American poet Maya Angelou for the illustrations of her book Poetry. Lagarrigue was recently featured in New American Paintings #104.
Born in Calgary, Canada in 1968, Joseph Adolphe moved to New York City in 1992 to attend graduate school at the School of Visual Arts. He is currently represented by the Bertrand Delacroix Gallery in New York City and The Kehler Liddell Gallery in New Haven. He is a professor in the department of fine arts at St. John’s University in New York, where he teaches drawing and painting. Joseph lives with his wife and children in New Haven.
An emerging artist with no formal academic training, Taha Clayton gathers inspiration from the world around him, his passion for music, and his own vivid imagination. Born in Houston, TX, raised in Toronto, ON and currently living in Brooklyn, NY, Clayton’s paintings pull the viewers into a dreamlike world, guiding them through a story built from his own experiences, environment, and fantasy.
Born in Edmonton, Canada, painter Tim Okamura earned a B.F.A. with distinction at the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary, Canada before moving to New York City to attend the School of Visual Arts in 1991. After graduating with an M.F.A. in 1993, Okamura relocated to Brooklyn, New York, where he continues to live and work. His artwork has been exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery in London and in galleries throughout the United States and Canada. It is also included in the permanent collection of the Davis Museum as well as in the private collections of celebrity clients such as John Mellencamp and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson.