Jordan Casteel will not be resting on her laurels – 71Bait

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 (13 August – 14 September 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. Casteel’s paintings used green, turquoise, or earth red to paint some of her subjects, adding an imaginative challenge to the visibility and invisibility of black men in the United States to the documentary nature of her work (based on her photographs).

In this well-received exhibition, Casteel established herself as a realistic documentarian of black life, initially using a camera to define her subject. However, unlike artists who rely on a camera, she is too enamored with color and its possibilities to be called a photorealist. That, and her willingness to move away from the photo’s naturalistic color palette and use blue as her skin color, underscored her refusal to play it safe. She didn’t stay on that topic either, as she quickly expanded her project to paint the residents of a particular neighborhood (Harlem), which was akin to Martin Wong’s paintings of New York and San Francisco’s Chinatown storefronts and the residents of Manhattan’s Lower East Side Latino together has community.

A lot has happened to Casteel and her art since that first eye-opening exhibition. Her work has been the subject of two museum exhibitions, Jordan Casteel: Looking back at the Denver Art Museum (February 2–August 18, 2019), curated by Rebecca Hart, and Jordan Castle: Within reach in the Neues Museum (February 19, 2020–January 3, 2021), curated by Massimiliano Giono. Together, these comprehensive surveys revealed Casteel’s recurring themes based on photos she takes of friends and family, cropped views of people looking at their cell phones, mothers or fathers with their children on public transport, people selling their goods or outside Harlem sits on the sidewalks, couples of women and men, shopkeepers and their students in 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)

In the portraits, it becomes clear that Casteel has a deep relationship with her subjects; they trust her. In the other paintings, often based on photographs taken on a subway or bus, she witnesses the public side of domestic life, like two sleeping children leaning against their mother. The focus of all works is the tenderness and respect of the artist towards her motifs, including towards strangers. She portrays black and colored immigrants who are comfortable in their own skin.

What I find remarkable about Casteel’s career is that she learns about painting in the public eye and discovers what she can make of it. She could do variations on themes that viewers have become familiar with and for which she has been praised, but she hasn’t. This distinguishes her from many of her contemporaries who also received attention. From the beginning she has pushed herself by embracing more sophisticated compositions, all serving her desire to portray black and colored immigrants – both of whom are routinely humiliated and demonized in the United States and elsewhere – in their lives with a sense of pride , joy, determination and self-confidence. Above all, she strives for the dignity of people of color at a time when the tide of xenophobia, homophobia, and racism is rising in the United States and the world.

So I was curious to see Jordan Castle: In full bloom at the Casey Kaplan Gallery (September 8 to October 22, 2022), her first exhibition since showing at the New Museum. I was not disappointed. As I expected, Casteel is not resting on its laurels. With the exhibition’s nine paintings ranging from 36 x 30 to 94 x 80 inches, she has set a high standard for herself and continues to expand her subjects, going in unexpected directions and finding new ways to represent the everyday world. In five of the paintings on display, Casteel adds something new to her work, and everything 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 lecture given by Ed Roberson on November 14, 2007 in the Northwestern. As I wrote in an online essay for the Poetry Foundation, Roberson “pointed out that he is a black poet who writes nature poetry. Roberson has not said, although he certainly could have done, that his view of nature breaks the historical conventions of nature poetry and critiques what the painterly view is that allows the poet to believe there is a sanctuary outside of human reality .”

In “Daffodil” Casteel reinvents the still life, starting with perspective. A picnic table made of dark turquoise blue planks angles from the lower right corner and forms a triangle at about the center of the painting. A lustrous earth-red jar full of recently-picked flowers stands near the apex of the triangle and occupies the center of the painting. On the table is a large, round, blue tray or plate, cut off at the bottom edge of the painting; another is cut off at the right edge. A blue bar sticks out 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.

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

The painting merges two different palettes. Casteel blends the monochromatic palette of turquoise blue hues used for the table, trays, cutlery and vertical posts with a realistic palette of reds, whites and greens to surround the jug, flowers, leaves, trees and plants to depict, and greyish pink to indicate 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 capture the viewer’s attention, something not taught in art school. If you look closely at the flowers and leaves in the jug, you can see her attention to detail. She is not interested in color as a kind of shorthand, but in conveying the diverse sensual pleasures of the material world.

The placement of the tray implies the viewer’s presence in front of the collected flowers and shows how adept Casteel has become in conveying the tension between the three-dimensional space and the two-dimensional surface of the painting. Our implied presence reminded me of Roberson’s belief that we are inseparable from nature. Unlike many still life paintings, we are participants rather than detached observers.

“Magnolia” is in dialogue with Vincent van Gogh’s paintings of blossoming almond trees like “Almond Blossom” (1890) and his exposure to Japanese art. In this strange view, the tip of a large pink-and-white magnolia blossom rising from the bottom of the painting stops just before touching the base of the tree in the middle distance. A petal rendered as a blob of pink separates the two. Around the tree, dashes of color articulate fallen magnolia blossoms. Casteel is increasingly comfortable moving between abstraction and description, and the traces of rigidity in her earlier work are quickly disappearing.

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 blooms and bare branches of ‘Magnolia’ tell us it’s either early spring or late summer, as this tree can bloom twice. The suspension of flowers in the air around the tree is unsettling, surreal and mesmerizing – we seem to have stepped into a slow, dreamlike vortex of falling flowers. In Japan, the spring bloom of cherry blossoms (or sakura) signifies both renewal and the transience of life. Unlike van Gogh’s blossoming almond trees, which are widely read 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 previously painted, a young father holding his toddler. However, three things distinguish them from their previous presentations on this subject. First, the painting combines an interior and exterior view: a large row of windows angles from the right side of the painting, revealing a snow-covered quarterdeck with trees growing over the wooden railing. Second, while Casteel found many of her subjects in Harlem, this scene takes place elsewhere. 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 signs and their absence? I see the painting’s open resistance to legibility as new and conscious. And while interviewers will likely ask Casteel to explain the grades, I hope she never tells us.

In “Field Balm” (2022) we look down at a pair of celery-green crocodiles carried by a teenage girl of unspecified race. She is standing on a patch of brown fall foliage, weeds and plants growing through the ground cover. The bare legs – cropped mid-calf at the top of the painting – are lavender in color with a violet border. A pin that reads BLACK LIVES MATTER in red, white and green is attached to one shoe, while the word EXPLORE and a pin with a red and white mushroom (Amanita muscaria), which are often found on Christmas cards and are known for their hallucinogenic properties, on the other hand. The combination invites interpretation. What do all these things say about the child’s possibilities?

In less than a decade, Casteel has evolved from compelling portraits that challenge and upend mainstream society’s racist stereotypes about black people and immigrants to a painterly space where her pursuit has become limitless.

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

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