See Them, Feel Them, Hear Them

Jordan Casteel Wants the World to View and Know Black Men As She Does

Miles and Jojo, 54 x 72, 2015Long before the deaths of Travon Martin, Eric Garner, and 12 year old Tamir Rice, the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his own home, and National Book Award contender (Between the World and Me, 2015) Ta-Nehisi Coates’ polemic on the hazards of being in a black male skin while negotiating American society, long before all of that, “black” and “male” has been shorthand for “fear and danger” in the minds of many Americans.

 Ashamole Brothers, 54 x 72This conceptual shorthand was exaggerated and perpetuated by mass media such as the dark, lurking rapist and the fried chicken-eating black politicians in D.W. Griffith's 1915 film, Birth of a Nation. 

Jordan Casteel’s art combats dehumanizing assumptions about young black men with portrayals of the ways in which they embody the universal humanity we all should recognize in each other. 

Hamilton Cousins, 54 x 72, 2015Brothers at Sargent’s Daughters, New York, NY, October 16 – November 15, 2015, is Casteel’s second solo exhibition at the gallery. It is comprised of eight new oil paintings, created while the artist was in residence at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s “Process Space” residency on Governor’s Island. 

Sargent’s Daughters Gallery has produced a catalogue on the occasion of the exhibition, with commentary by Jiréh Breon Holder, Didier William and Dexter Wimberly.

Marcus and Jace, 72 x 54, 2015Casteel’s work has always addressed the larger scope of the humanity of black men, who too often are portrayed in the public sphere in a deeply politicized manner, and uses the paintings as her vehicle for addressing the wider matter of what it is to be black today in the U.S. In her portrayals we are always confronted with the humanity and individuality of these men and are brought into their worlds on their own terms.

Casteel reflected on how current tensions about policing informs her work in an email interview for this article.  “In the wake of ongoing historic and systemic violence against black men, it is more important than ever to contribute a vision of blackness that shows the complexities of black men instead of reducing them,” she said.  

Three Lions, 54 x 72 in, oil on canvas, 2015“My paintings address the broader scope of the human experience. Whether it is a solo figure demanding intimate attention, or multiple figures leading us to ask who they are in relation to each other — each subject is asking to be seen through an empathetic lens.”

Ron and Jordan, 72 x 54, 2015Casteel brings the better of two worlds to her aesthetic project: she is a talented figurative painter and a savvy social justice activist-advocate. Marrying fine art and politics without compromising one aspect of her agenda by the engagement of the other, her work succeeds exceedingly in both respects.

“I am proactively countering those [negative] images [of black men] by adding layers of personality to people who are being portrayed in a way over which they have no control,” she explains. “My hope is that as a result of the digital age, my deeply personal vision will help to create a new narrative and counteract implicit bias.” 

Barbershop, 72 x 54, 2015Recalling her call to do this work in a 2015 Flash Artinterview, Casteel said “world saw those that I loved most—my brothers, my father, my friends, family and lovers—as being less than what they are. As those around me were/are literally and figuratively killed, the urgency to share my lens became more imperative…As a woman making this work, my gaze is that of empathy. I am standing in solidarity with my community that has experienced immense loss and pain…” 

In the current exhibition, Casteel continues her exploration of black men’s lives and relationships, but, for the first time, turns her attention to the connection of black men to each other.  

Ato, oil on canvas, 72 x 54, 2014In her previous body of work each figure was solitary, but here fathers, sons, brothers and children appear together, almost always at home and surrounded by familiar objects.  In addition, most of the subjects are close to the artist — her own twin brother, nephew and cherished friends.  This intimacy with her subjects allows for Cornellus, oil on canvas, 72 x 54, 2014the relaxed contexts in which they’re depicted.  The men’s personalities radiate through the paintings and involve the viewers in the complexities of their connections to each other.  

Casteel’s handling of paint remains of primary importance to the work.  Each surface has a distinct imprint and weight.  Background elements such as the University flags on the wall in Marcus and Jace, the records in Three Lions and the glimpse of the schoolchildren portraits of The Crockett Brothers point to lives beyond the borders of the canvas.

Brothers is black men, as they are, with emphasis on the prosaic as well as poetic. This scrutiny of the mundane is central to Casteel’s work and figures in its beauty and power.

Crockett Brothers, 54 x 72, 2015Jordan CasteelJordan Casteel was born in 1989 in Denver CO.  She received her MFA in 2014 from Yale School of Art in New Haven, CT. In 2015 Casteel was awarded artist residences at Yaddo and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council as well as the 2015-16 Artist-In-Residence at The Studio Museum in Harlem.

Her work also was selected for inclusion in New American Paintings Northeast Issue #116 - 2015. Casteel’s work has been featured in Flash Art, Vice, Time Out New York, The New York Observer, Blouin Artinfo and Interview Magazine

— John Welch