Twins, 2017

American figurative painter Jordan Casteel (b. 1989, Denver, CO) has focused on depicting the lived experiences of her friends, family, and strangers she meets on the streets of her neighbourhood in Harlem, New York. She is particularly drawn to representing Black men, an interest which stemmed from a culmination of experiences she had during an artist residency in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and learning of the acquittal of George Zimmermann in the death of Trayvon Martin in 2013. Gloucester is a predominantly white community, and Casteel, feeling a disconnect from the town and its residents, turned inwards for inspiration. What she found was a desire to speak about the issues and people who mattered most to her. Of her experience at Gloucester she said, “It highlighted the way I was seeing the world and gave me insight into how to bring that into my practice.”* Returning from her residency, she painted a portrait of her twin brother’s best friend, and from there her painting practice evolved to focus on portraits of Black men from all walks of life. A consistent and provocative theme in her work is the steady gaze of her subjects as they look directly at the viewer. For Casteel, humanizing and countering the hypersexualized and villianized representations of the black male body were very important, as well as giving the men presence and visibility. 

Having the direct contact of the eyes is an intimate space to hold. But it felt like a really important one. That was the beginning of thinking about the gaze as holding space.”*

Casteel moved to Harlem in 2015 to attend The Studio Museum Artist-in-Residence Program. Walking around the neighbourhood, she came across Amina Hair Salon, a salon that specializes in hair braiding for African-American women’s hair. Like many of her paintings, including her series of portraits, Casteel depicts the salon at night, the fluorescent lights peeking out from behind posters of models with various braided hairstyles displayed in the window. Amina (2017) does not feature any actual people, however the piece paints a portrait of the black community within an urban landscape. Interestingly, and perhaps pointedly, Amina was the only work to include female figures – the women in the posters – in Casteel’s solo exhibition which took place at Casey Kaplan Gallery in New York in 2017. 

Amina, 2017

Casteel’s process typically includes taking photographs of her subjects, which she then uses as reference later while she’s painting. She noticed that the photographs, particularly because they were taken at night, would dilute or alter her subjects’ skintones. To rectify the effect of photography flattening darker skin tones, Casteel paints her subjects with juxtaposing warm and cool tones of colour to illuminate the figures as they stand in lit doorways, sit on steps, chairs, or lean against storefronts. Another aspect of her process is while chatting with her subjects before she photographs them, she will invite them to come view the finished painting in her studio. This, she says, “…is pretty magnificent. That’s a moment where I become vulnerable.”*

On view until August 18, 2019, at the Denver Art Museum, Jordan Casteel’s retrospective exhibition, Jordan Casteel: Returning the Gaze, features thirty works, including new paintings, in the artist’s first major museum exhibition. In her more recent work, Casteel has featured women, as well as men, in many of her urban portraits. Her use of colour to create a light that seems to emanate from her subjects presents not only a photographic interpretation of the figures, but a sincere and individualized presence and embodiment. In this retrospective, Casteel featured many of her friends and family in Denver. When faced with the argument that male figures have dominated her work, Casteel explains, “The female or the essence of woman has never been absent from this work, and in reality, this exhibition will show that: One of the first paintings you see is an early painting of my mom, and there are other women sprinkled through my practice.”**

Written by Whitney Brennan

*Quote from “Jordan Casteel on What It’s Like to Make People Really See Someone,” by Katy Donoghue, White Wall, May 4, 2018.

** Quote from “Jordan Casteel on Returning the Gaze at the Denver Art Museum,” by Susan Froyd, Westword, January 31, 2019.