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 young, fit Black men, all unclothed, in a domestic interior, surrounded by banal objects (tea kettle, photographs, disco ball, blankets, books), looking intently at the viewer. Using green, turquoise, or earth red to paint some of her subjects, Casteel’s paintings infused the documentarian nature of her work (based on her photographs) with an imaginative challenge regarding the visibility and invisibility of Black men in the United States.
In that well-received exhibition, Casteel established herself as a realist documentarian of Black lives, who used a camera initially to define her subject matter. However, in contrast to artists who rely on a camera, she is too in love with paint and what it could do to be called a photorealist. That, and her willingness to break free from the photograph’s naturalistic color palette and use blue as a skin color, underscored her refusal to play it safe. Nor did she stay with that subject, as she quickly expanded her project to paint the inhabitants of a particular neighborhood (Harlem), which shares something with Martin Wong’s paintings of New York’s and San Francisco’s Chinatown storefronts and the inhabitants of Manhattan’s Lower East Side Latino community.
A lot has happened to Casteel, and in her art, since that first, eye-opening exhibition. Her work has been the subject of two museum exhibitions, Jordan Casteel: Returning the Gaze at the Denver Art Museum (February 2–August 18, 2019), curated by Rebecca Hart, and Jordan Casteel: Within Reach at the New Museum (February 19, 2020–January 3, 2021), curated by Massimiliano Giono. Together, these comprehensive surveys showcased Casteel’s recurring subjects, based on photographs she takes of friends and family, cropped views of people looking at their cellphones, mothers or fathers with their children on public transportation, people selling their wares or sitting outside on the sidewalks of Harlem, pairs of women and men, store owners, and her students at Rutgers-Newark.
With the portraits, it is clear that Casteel has a deep rapport with her subjects; they trust her. In the other paintings, often based on photographs taken on a subway or bus, she is a witness to the public side of domestic life, such as two sleeping children leaning against their mother. What is central to all of the works is the artist’s tenderness and respect for her subjects, including strangers. She portrays Black people and immigrants of color who are comfortable in their skin.
What I find striking about Casteel’s career is that she is learning about painting in public, discovering what she can make it do. She could make variations on subjects with which viewers have become familiar and for which she has been praised, but she has not. This distinguishes her from many of her contemporaries who have also received attention. From the beginning she has pushed herself by taking on more challenging compositions, all in service of her desire to depict Black people and immigrants of color — both of whom are routinely demeaned and demonized in the United States and elsewhere — as they go about their lives with a sense of pride, joy, determination, and self-confidence. More than anything else, she is in pursuit of the dignity of people of color at a time when the tides of xenophobia, homophobia, and racism are rising across the United States and the world.
This is why I was curious to see Jordan Casteel: In Bloom at Casey Kaplan Gallery (September 8–October 22, 2022), her first exhibition since her New Museum show. I was not disappointed. As I expected, Casteel is not resting on her laurels. With the show’s nine paintings, ranging from 36 by 30 to 94 by 80 inches, she has set a high standard for herself and she continues to expand on her subjects, as well as go in unexpected directions, finding new ways to depict the everyday world. In five of the paintings on view, Casteel adds something new to her work, and all of it seems purposeful.
With the large still life “Daffodil” and two unlikely views of nature, “Magnolia” and “In Bloom” (all 2022), I was reminded of a talk that Ed Roberson gave at Northwestern on November 14, 2007. As I wrote in an online essay for the Poetry Foundation, Roberson “pointed out he is a Black poet who writes nature poems. Roberson didn’t say, though he certainly could have, that his view of nature breaks as well as critiques the historical conventions of nature poetry, which is the picturesque view that enables the poet to believe there is a sanctuary outside of human reality.”
In “Daffodil,” Casteel reimagines the still life, starting with the perspective. A picnic table made of dark turquoise-blue boards angles in from the lower right corner, forming a triangle near the middle of the painting. A shiny earth-red pitcher full of recently picked flowers sits near the triangle’s peak, occupying the center of the painting. On the table, a large, round blue tray or plate is cropped by the painting’s bottom edge; another is cropped by the right edge. A blue beam extends up from behind the table; a house-like shape, possibly a mailbox or a small house in the distance, appears to be attached to the beam.
The painting melds two different palettes. Casteel interlocks the monochromatic range of turquoise blue hues, used for the table, trays, silverware, and vertical post, with a realist palette of reds, whites, and greens to depict the pitcher, flowers, leaves, trees, and plants, and grayish pink to suggest the stone patio.
I appreciated that some parts of the painting were immediately legible, while others were not. One of Casteel’s strengths is that she knows how to hold the viewer’s attention, something that is not taught in art school. If you look closely at the flowers and leaves in the pitcher, you see how closely she attends to details. She is not interested in paint as a kind of shorthand, but rather in conveying the different sensual pleasures of the material world.
The tray’s placement implies the viewer’s presence, opposite the gathered flowers, and marks how deft Casteel has become in conveying the tension between three-dimensional space and painting’s two-dimensional surface. Our implied presence reminded me of Roberson’s belief that we are inseparable from nature. In contrast to many still life paintings, we are positioned as participants rather than detached observers.
“Magnolia” is in dialogue with Vincent van Gogh’s paintings of blossoming almond trees, such as “Almond Blossom” (1890), and his engagement with Japanese art. In this odd view, the top of a large pink and white magnolia blossom, rising from the painting’s bottom edge, stops just short of touching the bottom of the tree in the middle ground. A petal, rendered as a dab of pink, separates the two. Around the tree, paint strokes articulate fallen magnolia blossoms. Casteel has become increasingly comfortable moving between abstraction and description, and the traces of stiffness in her earlier work are fast receding.
“Magnolia”’s dispersed flowers and bare branches tell us that it is either early spring or late summer, as this tree can bloom twice. The flowers’ suspension in the air around the tree is unsettling, unreal, and mesmerizing — we seem to have stepped into a slow, dreamlike whirlwind of falling flowers. In Japan, the springtime blooming of the cherry blossoms (or sakura) signifies both renewal and the ephemerality of life. In contrast to van Gogh’s blossoming almond trees, widely read as a sign of hope, Casteel’s magnolia blossoms are floating, falling, and rising. 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 painted before, a young father holding his infant child. Three things, however, differentiate them from her previous representations of this subject. First, the painting joins an interior and exterior view: a large set of windows angles in from the the painting’s right side, showing a snow-covered back deck with trees growing beyond the wooden railing. Second, while Casteel has found many of her subjects in Harlem, this scene takes place somewhere else altogether. Third, and most importantly, the green markings on the man’s face, neck, and hands are not on the child he is holding. How are we to read these emphatic marks and their absence? I see the painting’s overt resistance to readability as new and deliberate. And while interviewers are likely to ask Casteel to explain the marks, I hope she never tells us.
In “Field Balm” (2022), we are looking down at an angle at a pair of celery-green crocs worn by what seems like an adolescent girl of undetermined race. She stands on a patch of brown autumn leaves, weeds and plants growing through the ground cover. The bare legs — cropped at mid-calf by the painting’s top edge — are lavender, edged in violet. A pin bearing the phrase BLACK LIVES MATTER in red, white, and green is attached to one shoe, while 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 these things suggest about the child’s options?
In less than a decade, Casteel has moved from making compelling portraits that challenge as well as upend mainstream society’s racist stereotypes of Black people and immigrants to opening up a painterly space in which her pursuit has become unlimited.
Jordan Casteel: In Bloom continues at Casey Kaplan Gallery (121 West 27th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 22. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.
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