Portraits that more than meet the eye

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Portraits that more than meet the eye
Jordan Casteel, Joe and Mozel (Pompette Wines), 2017. Oil on canvas, 90 x 78 in (228.6 x 198.1 cm). Private collection. Courtesy the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York.

by Jillian Steinhauer

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Jordan Casteel’s exhibition “Within Reach” is currently hanging on the second floor of the temporarily shuttered New Museum. The situation is somewhat paradoxical, given that the show’s most prominent theme is closeness — something that’s been severely disrupted by the coronavirus crisis. Yet that also makes it a good time to look at Casteel’s work however we can — in a digital walk-through and in the catalog — and think about the vision of community it offers.

This is the artist’s first solo museum show in New York and it includes works from her noted series “Visible Man” (2013-14) and “Nights in Harlem” (2017). In large, expressive portraits, Casteel celebrates the people around her, black and brown folk who have historically been excluded from art institutions. Her subjects present themselves to her, and to us, posing as they want to be seen in a way that brings to mind Malians in the 1950s sitting for the photographer Seydou Keïta. They invite us into their worlds, offering the audience a privileged view.

Back when you could still see it, the exhibition created a distinct sense of being let in on a casual but celebratory gathering, like a potluck or a block party. It’s harder to feel that spirit online, but browsing images on the artist’s website and on her gallery page gives the closest sense of it. The New Museum’s video walk-through is more helpful as an introduction to her practice.

The artist honed her approach while getting her MFA at Yale in 2012–14. She enrolled months after George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American high school student, in Florida. He was acquitted of murder the following year after saying he acted in self-defense. The episode prompted Casteel to delve into a longstanding issue in American culture: a lack of nuanced portrayals of black boys and men, who are haunted by stereotypes of them as menacing or carnal. She wanted to show their humanity.

The result was “Visible Man,” a series of nude portraits of some of her fellow students at Yale. In these riveting paintings, several of which are in the show, the men lounge in domestic spaces whose ordinariness underscores their vulnerability. They’re surrounded by small markers of their identities, from a stack of books to a bottle of Jim Beam. Their genitals are artfully obscured to avoid voyeurism or sexualization. Instead, we must look at their faces and meet their forthright, honest gazes.

“Jonathan” (2014), which can be seen in the New Museum video, exemplifies Casteel’s fruitful experiments with color in the series. Lit by a nearby lamp, his body glows with patches of red, green and yellow. In other paintings, the men’s skin ranges from salmon pink to ghostly turquoise, complementing their vibrant surroundings. With these choices, she evokes predecessors like African American painters Beauford Delaney and Bob Thompson. She also challenges the concept of blackness, exploring how identity is shaped beyond the shade of one’s skin.

Casteel’s project of portraying black men and boys expanded after she left Yale. She devoted a series to portraits of brothers and cousins sitting together in twos or threes. But her big breakthrough came during a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem. She would walk around and introduce herself to men who hung out on the neighborhood’s streets, asking them to pose for her. If they agreed, she would take dozens, sometimes hundreds, of photographs of her subject and then, back in the studio, let the pictures guide the painting, not as one-to-one representations but as reference material. In time, she would begin to depict women too, often local business owners, and the occasional scene devoid of people.

“Nights in Harlem” includes some of Casteel’s best work. Her renderings are incisive but also empathetic and warm. Her compositions demonstrate how a neighborhood and its public spaces can serve as a kind of home. “Stanley” (2016), for instance, cozies up in a nook bounded on one side by what looks like a construction wall, while the three men in “Cowboy E, Sean Cross, and Og Jabar” (2017) command a flight of steps. (I love the way one man’s leg is cut off by the frame, as it might be in a snapshot.) Many subjects are not centered, as if to let their surroundings complete the picture, and in pieces like “Yvonne and James” (2017), the glow of electric light creates an almost beatific effect that amplifies the warmth the couple exudes. It’s not hard to understand why Casteel calls this “one of my favorite paintings of all time.”

Although her models remain still, Casteel’s paintings never feel static. In part that’s because she rarely renders a figure or an object in a single shade. Her brush strokes have become more fluid over the years, and her pictorial choices more confident, imbuing her latest portrait series, of her students at Rutgers University-Newark, with impressive kinetic energy. For example, the right foot of “Noelle” (2019) melds with the blankets it rests on and becomes an abstract wave of yellow and brown. In “Serwaa and Amoakohene” (2019), a young man and his mother sit proudly and comfortably with their arms resting on each other in a living room awash with color and pattern. You half expect them to spring to life and start talking.

This approach links Casteel to one of her primary inspirations, Alice Neel, who used composition and color to heightened emotional effect. But whereas Neel’s portraits aim for psychological penetration, Casteel’s tend to only hint at what’s beneath the surface. Like the photographs they’re based on, they appear to capture a moment in time, a social exchange or relationship, more than the essence of a person. At her strongest, Casteel seems to be painting her way toward intimacy, balancing her artistic vision with her subjects’ self-presentation. Occasionally that productive tension goes missing, resulting in a work, like “Shirley (Spa Boutique2Go)” (2018), that feels emotionally thin.

Still, it’s important to note that Casteel is only 31 — young to be having a museum exhibition that caps off a dizzyingly successful period since her graduation. Many of the almost 40 paintings in “Within Reach” are recognizable from the regular gallery shows she’s had in New York City since 2014, and nearly every piece comes from a private collection. This casts a slight hyped-up, market-driven pall over the presentation.

Casteel is at a crucial moment when she needs to experiment and develop, not become boxed in. So it’s encouraging to see the inclusion of works from an ongoing series, begun in 2017, in which she paints scenes she’s observed on the subway. They’re not posed, and they often don’t show people’s faces, only gestures and quiet moments. The figures’ anonymity gives the scenes a heightened emotional power in our age of social distancing. Taken alongside Casteel’s portraits, they offer another way of arriving at what may be her true subject, and a message to carry with us until safer times: Getting close to other people — within reach, you might say — is a way of choosing to live in the world.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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