Critics’ Picks

Jordan Casteel, Three Lions, 2015, oil on canvas, 54 x 72".

Jordan Casteel, Three Lions, 2015, oil on canvas, 54 x 72".

New York

Jordan Casteel

Sargent's Daughters
179 East Broadway Ground Floor
October 16–November 15, 2015

Jordan Casteel’s eight new oil paintings collectively titled “Brothers” are double (or triple) portraits of black men and boys—brothers, cousins, fathers and sons, including the artist’s own nephews and twin. Casteel portrays them tenderly, in casual dress, sitting close together, touching. And she gives their surroundings the same attention: The canvases are windows into vibrant, detailed interiors. She achieves their diorama-like magnetism with subtle perspectival distortions and a synergy of textures. Casteel renders the tapestry prints of upholstery fluidly, and high-pile carpet with gummy little brushstrokes. Objects in the background are also represented carefully, such as the cover of the Marvin Gaye album What’s Going On displayed in Three Lions (all works cited 2015), or the college pennants on a wall behind the young man streaked with Venetian-blind sunlight in Marcus and Jace, his arm around a sleeping toddler.

Casteel’s work points to an activist’s impulse to depict black men, with their particular vulnerability to state violence, intimately and individually. There’s nothing ingratiating about their poses; she paints them with direct, confrontational gazes, invoking the historical provocation of Manet’s 1865 Olympia. Casteel’s solo show last year at Sargent’s Daughters featured portraits of black men, too. But they were solitary, and nude, making a more explicit reference to Manet’s radical depiction of prostitute Victorine Meurent. Of course, Meurent, unlike Casteel’s nudes, isn’t alone—she’s attended by a flower-bearing black maid nearly absorbed by the studio’s dark draped backdrop.

The absence of black women in Casteel’s work raises another urgent representational question, one addressed less plainly in her paintings than the dehumanization of black men. You could say the “invisible” black woman of “Brothers” is actually visible—culturally—by virtue of her position outside the frame (as the artist herself). But maybe Casteel is doing something trickier than just that. Reviewing the show’s images, I thought—wait—isn’t that a woman, wearing Uggs and a pink beret or processing cap, a baby on her knee, in Barbershop?