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PRINT February 2019

CLOSE-UP: HELD STILL

Jordan Casteel, Mom Hand, 2014, oil on canvas, 32 × 26".

AFTER EIGHTEEN YEARS, Sethe and Paul D, characters in Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved, are reunited in a house that is haunted by the ghost of Sethe’s infant child. The two of them had been enslaved on a plantation they call Sweet Home, the sort of ironic name that plagued those years. (My great-great-great grandfather, born enslaved in 1836, was named Pleasant.) Paul D has been wandering since he ran away, while Sethe, in the wake of emancipation, has found a home for herself and her only surviving daughter, Denver, though the ghost keeps them isolated. Sethe has invited Paul D, who was always sweet on her, to stay for dinner, which she is making as the two catch up on the events of the past eighteen years. Sethe, in a tense moment, rather offhandedly mentions the “tree” on her back, and a curious Paul D wants to know more. As she tells the story, Sethe starts on her biscuits. She licks a fingertip before touching it to the stove to ensure the stove is hot enough. She then runs her fingers through the flour, searching for mites, and once she’s satisfied that there are none, she pours soda and salt “into the crease of her folded hand and tosse[s] both into the flour.” With the same hand, she scoops a chunk of lard from a can, squeezes “the flour through it, then with her left hand sprinkling water, she form[s] the dough.”

The tree on her back is the scar from when she was attacked, beaten with cowhide while she was pregnant, and the milk from her full breasts stolen from her. As Sethe finishes telling this story to Paul D, she touches the stove with her fingertip one more time before putting her biscuits in to bake.

Jordan Casteel has received critical acclaim for portraiture that largely depicts black men, so the painting Mom Hand, 2014, stands out. The canvas, which appears in the artist’s solo exhibition “Jordan Casteel: Returning the Gaze,” opening this month at the Denver Art Museum (in Casteel’s hometown), represents precisely what its name suggests: A woman’s hand is at center, and it is resting on her knee; it appears that she is sitting on the ground, her left hip raised a bit. Her face is not visible to us: The portrait is cut off right around her chest. The only other skin that is exposed is the fold of her arm, her legs wrapped in red tights and a colorful but predominantly blue dress covering the rest of her.

Casteel’s subjects are black people, though she is always painting them with different colors: greens, blues, oranges, and other hues. She did so at first, she has explained, as a sort of visual trick, asking the viewer to question their social conditioning—why does this green/blue/orange person immediately register as black to you? What other assumptions do you carry about them?

But her subjects are black, deliberately so, as Casteel seeks to render the ordinariness of black life with the deep empathy and reverence typically reserved in portraiture for white royalty. However, her work may have more in common with that of Alice Neel, who painted East Harlem residents in the 1940s and ’50s with much the same attention to human regularity Casteel demonstrates today. In fact, Mom Hand was first exhibited at New York’s James Cohan Gallery alongside works by Neel and Henry Taylor.

Casteel’s subjects, who come from her community, are seen with a gaze they are rarely afforded: that of a sister, a friend, a daughter, a companion, a neighbor. The artist has stripped away that which is damning to reveal that which is more honest. These are people who do all of the things people do, in the places in which people do them, and yet it feels like a revolution to see them, because they have been ignored for so long.

With Mom Hand, though, the focus is narrowed. Here, in a deep plum, Casteel shows us a single still hand belonging to a black woman, and this feels like a relief. Because it is not hard to imagine this same hand in motion because of how many responsibilities black women’s hands have carried. Sethe’s hands do not stop moving as Paul D listens, in horror, to her story. Her hands move expertly even as she recounts her own trauma, which she holds in the tree on her back, and never misses a beat. The biscuits still get done.

Bill Withers sang of “Grandma’s Hands” and how thankful he was for them. (In a live performance of this song, he referred to them as “gnarled.”) While a blues guitar strums the melody, simple, plodding percussion thumps along—something Grandma’s hands could have easily played by slapping against her thigh—and Withers recounts all the things her hands did for him and for others: soothed the local unwed mother, picked Withers up each time he fell. And still, Grandma’s hands “used to ache sometimes and swell.” Her hands care for everyone, all the time. They hurt from the load. They don’t, however, stop.

In their 2014 poem “Black Boy Be,” Danez Smith writes:

like blood all over everything: the reeboks,
the tube socks, the air & the mother’s hands

Casteel’s Mom Hand is clean, at rest. I’m happy for it, and still I dread the day when it is not.

“Jordan Casteel: Returning the Gaze,” curated by Rebecca R. Hart, will be on view February 2 through May 26 at the Denver Art Museum; travels to the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, Stanford, California, in September.

Mychal Denzel Smith is the author of Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man's Education (Nation Books2016) and a consulting producer of the TV documentary Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story.