October 1, 2022

Jordan Casteel won’t rest on his laurels

In 2014, Jordan Casteel graduated from Yale with an MFA and had her first solo exhibition, visible man, at Sargent’s Daughters in New York (August 13-September 14, 2014). The show consisted of larger-than-life portraits of fit young black men, all naked, in a domestic interior, surrounded by mundane objects (tea kettle, photographs, disco ball, blankets, books), staring intently at the viewer. Using green, turquoise, or earth red to paint some of his subjects, Casteel’s paintings imbued the documentary nature of his work (based on his photographs) with an imaginative challenge to the visibility and invisibility of black men. in the USA.

In this well-received exhibition, Casteel established herself as a realistic documentarian of black life, who first used a camera to define her subject. However, unlike artists who rely on a camera, she is too enamored with painting and what it might do to be called photorealistic. This, and his willingness to break free from photography’s naturalistic color palette and use blue as his skin color, underscored his refusal to play it safe. She didn’t stay on this topic either, as she soon expanded her project to paint the people of a particular neighborhood (Harlem), which shares something with Martin Wong’s paintings of New York’s Chinatown storefronts. and San Francisco and residents of Manhattan’s Latino Lower East Side. community.

Much has happened to Casteel, and his art, since that first eye-opening exhibition. His work has been the subject of two museum exhibitions, Jordan Casteel: Looking back at the Denver Art Museum (February 2 to August 18, 2019), curated by Rebecca Hart, and Jordan Casteel: at your fingertips at the New Museum (February 19, 2020–January 3, 2021), curator Massimiliano Giono. Together, these comprehensive investigations featured Casteel’s recurring subjects, based on photographs she takes of friends and family, cropped views of people looking at their cell phones, mothers or fathers with their children in public transport. common, people selling their wares or sitting outside on the sidewalks of Harlem, pairs of women and men, shop owners and his students at Rutgers-Newark.

Jordan Casteel, “Magnolia” (2022), oil on canvas, 78 x 60 inches (© Jordan Casteel, courtesy the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York; photo Dan Bradica)

With the portraits, it is clear that Casteel has a deep connection with his subjects; they trust him. In the other paintings, often based on photographs taken in a subway or a bus, she witnesses the public side of domestic life, like two sleeping children leaning against their mother. What is central to all the works is the artist’s tenderness and respect for his subjects, including strangers. She portrays black people and immigrants of color feeling good about themselves.

What I find striking in Casteel’s career is that she learns to paint in public, discovers what she can make him do. She could make variations on topics that viewers became familiar with and praised for, but she didn’t. This sets her apart from many of her contemporaries who also received attention. From the start, she pushed herself by taking on more challenging compositions, all in service of her desire to portray black people and immigrants of color — both of whom are routinely belittled and demonized in the United States and elsewhere — as they live their life. with a sense of pride, joy, determination and self-confidence. More than anything else, she pursues the dignity of people of color at a time when waves of xenophobia, homophobia and racism are rising in the United States and around the world.

That’s why I was curious to see Jordan Castel: In Bloom at the Casey Kaplan Gallery (September 8-October 22, 2022), his first exhibition since his New Museum exhibition. I was not deceived. As I expected, Casteel is not resting on its laurels. With the nine paintings in the exhibition, ranging from 36 by 30 to 94 by 80 inches, she has set herself a high standard and she continues to expand her subjects, as well as going in unexpected directions, finding new ways of depicting the everyday world. . In five of the paintings on display, Casteel adds something new to his work, and it all seems helpful.

With the great still life “Daffodil” and two unlikely views of nature, “Magnolia” and “In Bloom” (all 2022), it reminded me of a talk Ed Roberson gave at Northwestern on November 14, 2007. As I wrote in an online essay for the Poetry Foundation, Roberson “pointed out that he is a black poet who writes poetry about nature. Roberson did not say, although he certainly could have said it, that his view of nature breaks and criticizes the historical conventions of nature poetry, which is the picturesque view that allows the poet to believe that he there is a sanctuary outside of human reality.

In “Daffodil”, Casteel reinvents still life, starting with perspective. A picnic table made of dark turquoise blue planks tilts from the lower right corner, forming a triangle near the middle of the painting. A brilliant earth-red pitcher filled with freshly picked flowers sits near the top of the triangle, occupying the center of the painting. On the table, a large round blue tray or plate is cropped by the lower edge of the painting; another is cropped by the right edge. A blue beam extends from behind the table; a house-like shape, perhaps a mailbox or a small house in the distance, appears to be attached to the beam.

Jordan Casteel, “Damani and Shola” (2022), oil on canvas, 90 x 78 inches (© Jordan Casteel, courtesy the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York; photo Dan Bradica)

Painting merges two different palettes. Casteel interlocks the monochromatic range of turquoise blue hues, used for the table, trays, silverware and upright post, with a realistic palette of reds, whites and greens to represent the pitcher, flowers, leaves, trees and plants, and greyish-pink to suggest the stone patio.

I liked that some parts of the painting were immediately readable, others not. One of Casteel’s strengths is knowing how to hold the viewer’s attention, which is not taught in art school. If you look closely at the flowers and leaves in the pitcher, you can see how attentive to detail she is. She is not interested in painting as a kind of shorthand, but rather in conveying the various sensual pleasures of the material world.

The placement of the tray implies the presence of the viewer, in front of the picked flowers, and marks how adept Casteel has become at conveying the tension between three-dimensional space and the two-dimensional surface of the painting. Our implicit presence reminded me of Roberson’s belief that we are inseparable from nature. Unlike many still lifes, we position ourselves as participants rather than detached observers.

“Magnolia” is in dialogue with Vincent van Gogh’s paintings of almond blossoms, such as “Almond Blossom” (1890), and his engagement with Japanese art. In this eerie view, the top of a large pink and white magnolia flower, rising from the lower edge of the painting, stops just short of touching the bottom of the tree in the middle. A petal, rendered as a touch of rose, separates the two. Around the tree, strokes of paint articulate fallen magnolia blossoms. Casteel has become more and more at ease between abstraction and description, and the traces of stiffness in her earlier work are rapidly fading.

Jordan Casteel, “Field Balm” (2022), oil on canvas, 36 x 30 inches (© Jordan Casteel, courtesy the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York; photo David Schulze)

The scattered flowers and bare branches of the “Magnolia” tell us that it is either the beginning of spring or the end of summer, because this tree can bloom twice. The suspension of the flowers in the air around the tree is unsettling, unreal and mesmerizing – we seem to have entered a slow, dreamlike whirlwind of falling flowers. In Japan, the spring flowering of cherry trees (or Cherry tree) signifies both the renewal and the transience of life. Unlike Van Gogh’s almond blossoms, widely interpreted as a sign of hope, Casteel’s magnolia blossoms float, fall and rise. In constant motion, joy and sorrow are as inseparable as peanut butter and jelly.

With “Damani and Shola” (2022), Casteel returns to a subject she has already painted, a young father holding his infant child. Three things, however, differentiate them from his earlier portrayals of this subject. First, the painting joins an interior and exterior view: a large set of windows angle from the right side of the painting, showing a snow-covered rear terrace with trees growing beyond the wooden railing. Second, while Casteel found many of his subjects in Harlem, this scene takes place elsewhere. Third, and most importantly, the green marks on the man’s face, neck, and hands are not on the child he is holding. How to read these emphatic marks and their absence? I see the painting’s overt resistance to legibility as new and deliberate. And while investigators are likely to ask Casteel to explain the notes, I hope she never tells us.

In “Field Balm” (2022), we look sideways at a pair of celery green fangs worn by what appears to be a teenage girl of undetermined race. She stands on a patch of brown fall leaves, weeds and plants growing through the ground cover. The bare legs – cut mid-calf by the top edge of the painting – are lavender, edged in purple. A pin bearing the phrase BLACK LIVES MATTER in red, white and green is attached to a shoe, while the word EXPLORE and a pin of a red and white mushroom (amanita muscaria) often found on Christmas cards and known for its hallucinogenic properties, are on the other. The combination invites interpretation. What do all of these things suggest about the child’s options?

In less than a decade, Casteel has gone from producing compelling portraits that challenge and subvert mainstream society’s racist stereotypes of black people and immigrants, to opening up a pictorial space in which his quest has become limitless.

Jordan Castel: In Bloom continues at the Casey Kaplan Gallery (121 West 27th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 22. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.