I am so glad I was able to see this exhibition of large-scale paintings by Jordan Casteel (born in 1989) at New Museum before the emergency hit. Hopefully, things will normalize soon, and many, including myself on a planned re-visit, will find it restorative in its affirmation of individuality that ultimately, sometimes ironically, defines human sameness as much as difference.
This show features the artist’s production from 2014 through 2019—the years that are characterized stylistically by breezy, painterly naturalism.
WHAT: Jordan Casteel: Within Reach
WHERE: New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York, NY 10002
WHEN: February 19, 2020—May 24, 2020 ( Museum is temporarily closed due to COVID-19)
Embracing the historical portrait genre, as inhered in seminal Latin terms and concepts like portrare (drawing out) and imago (likeness), Casteel brings a balance of inner and empirical reality in her subjects to the surface. Her aim is also to convey their awareness of self-presentation. In this, Casteel joins a rich lineage of African-American artists—one of the many worth mentioning is Kerry James Marshall. For Marshall, portraiture itself signifies visual power and always at some level is self-representation, according to art historian James Smalls, among others.
Casteel has been vocally committed to non-Caucasian subjects and close-to-home settings, none the less universal for this self-imposed paradigm.
Casteel’s forte is in capturing subtle body language. In “Noelle” (2019), for example, we sense the slight weight adjustments of sitting upright on a mattress.
The rhythmic patterning of the bedding in this isolated setting casts an animated inner life on the sitter. She meets us with a demure but consenting glance, enhanced by two other sets of eyes staring out from a juvenile Wonder Woman pillow and a goddess-like figure in a painting on the wall, respectively; the sitter is positioned in between.
Nearly all the works are titled with the names of the subjects, signifying a specific identity.
“Kimmah” (2019) presents a similar personal set-up in which the female sitter has swiveled in her chair to face us somewhat more forthright. Here more is given in terms of identity, including paint-flecked pants and references to Ghanaian culture in the paintings behind her. “Jenna” (2019) takes us to a private patch of nature with another momentary seated posture and glance centralized. Nearly all the works are titled with the names of the subjects, signifying a specific identity. One exception is, “Her Turn” (2018), in which the suggested subversion of voyeurism running through most of Casteel’s oeuvre thus far is more emphatic with a back view of a woman on a subway in elaborate Afrocentric dress.
The strong feminist vibe throughout is further emphasized through the inclusion of a group of sensuously-hued, seated, and reclining male nudes from her series, “Visible Man” (2013-2015). The female subjects, however, are all fully clothed. At the same time, these nudes present unconventional depictions of black male-hood, a feminist approach in itself — a nod to Ralph Ellison’s classic novel “Invisible Man” (1958). And plenty of Casteel’s male subjects show off the facility with sartorial flourishes seen in the women, such as “Charles” (2018), set on a local, identifiable street, as are others—mainly in Harlem.
A number of double and triple portraits add on to Casteel’s already multi-layered portrait dynamics— relationships between the subjects within the canvas. Still, one or more subjects usually address us directly, reminding us of their agency in her process. We immediately apprehend family members, friends, and lovers across generations in the affectionate looks, touching—Mise en Scène portrayed, each subject emitting a hidden life force beyond the posed arrangements. A few interesting compositional variations focus on cropped figures, such as “Within Reach” (2018), taken for the title of the exhibition and lending to several interpretations in that context.
Casteel communicates a challenge to the objectifying gaze of the portraitist that is often taken for granted.
As the title for the exhibition, the phrase lends to myriad interpretive directions. In this painting, Casteel takes the low viewpoint of a youngster crawling on his towering, cropped “dad’s” lap, with a cropped presumable sibling linked from the other side to form a tangled human unit. Overall, Casteel communicates an earnest challenge to the inherent objectifying gaze of the portraitist often taken for granted. In fact, she has enlisted sitters in this task explicitly at times, according to some of the museum labels, recalling the related painting practices Kehinde Wiley.
Other affinities with primarily portraitist near-peers include the fluid handling of medium seen in Toyin Ojih Odutola and the recognizability of Amy Sherald. All share a commitment to the figurative visual representation of people of color, especially within microcosmic communities of broader American society. Casteel stands out for a fleshy, monumental warmth in her delivery, even when sparse and summary, in this gathering of this early work in what is sure to be a long and prolific career.