New York

Jordan Casteel, Cowboy E, Sean Cross, and Og Jabar, 2017, oil on canvas, 90 x 78".

Jordan Casteel, Cowboy E, Sean Cross, and Og Jabar, 2017, oil on canvas, 90 x 78".

Jordan Casteel

Jordan Casteel, Cowboy E, Sean Cross, and Og Jabar, 2017, oil on canvas, 90 x 78".

The initial response to Jordan Casteel’s “Nights in Harlem” is a case study in how an exhibition’s reception can be overdetermined by an immediately preceding exhibition. By dint of their subject matter, her larger-than-life paintings of black men she met on the streets of Harlem inevitably recall the recent survey of portraits by Alice Neel of her neighbors in Spanish Harlem and on the Upper West Side, organized by Hilton Als at David Zwirner gallery. This has prompted critics to equate Casteel with Neel, more out of reflex than reflection. Most prominently, Jerry Saltz proclaimed Casteel “Alice Neel in embryo.” No doubt, the label was intended as laudatory, but it is ultimately demeaning, in much the same way that the framing of Oscar Murillo as the second coming of Jean-Michel Basquiat has been demeaning. It assures the market that this new package contains a familiar product, and it effaces what distinguishes Casteel from her predecessors.

To rigorously consider Casteel’s connection to Neel, we should stress the differences between the two. First off, there is simply the matter of approach. Neel’s subjects sat for her indoors. Her trademark mannerisms, such as the fishbowl bulge of her figures’ torsos and the quivering contours of their hands and clothes, convey the physical proximity and extended duration of these sessions, the rapport established over the easel. By contrast, Casteel photographed her subjects in situ around the neighborhood, a practice she first employed while an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2015. The men are in repose, perched on folding chairs, leaning against store windows, propped against a hydrant bollard. They acknowledge her camera and reciprocate her gaze, but not to the extent that they rise to greet her. The looks of Casteel’s men suggest neither the sustained intimacy of Neel’s portraits, nor the blasé affectation that Georg Simmel so famously ascribed to metropolitan life. Rather, their nods and glances belong to the repertoire of small gestures that transform a parcel of city into a neighborhood.

Casteel’s distance from Neel is also apparent on the level of facture. An idiosyncratic play of figure-ground relations guides how she translates her digital source images into painting. Her backgrounds are loosely sketched and filled in with thin swaths of saturated single hues. In Cowboy E, Sean Cross, and Og Jabar (all works 2017), a brick wall is arbitrarily split down the middle into cobalt blue and ruddy brown; in Zen, the phosphorescent orange illumination of a streetlamp has seemingly liquefied and pooled over the asphalt. When turning to the figure, Casteel switches brushes and applies paint in passage-style accumulations of interlocking finger-length strokes. She treats heads as structures of faceted planes holding almond-shaped eyes in place, and conjures skin tone through deft, original juxtapositions of strokes in two to three unblended hues. Hoodies and jackets are modeled with the sharp creases and dramatic folds of Baroque drapery. Of particular note is Casteel’s handling of feet—not for her attention to the architectonics of sneakers, but for how persuasively she anchors her subjects to the ground beneath them.

Much has been made of the artist’s decision to focus on male subjects, to the exclusion of women. Casteel winks at her own self-imposed prohibition in Amina, which shows the facade of a hair-braiding salon on Lenox Avenue. There, women appear in abundance, but only in two dimensions, as illustrations on an awning or as photographs taped to the shop’s window. Amina is the most uniformly thin of Casteel’s large-scale canvases, devoid of the near-sculptural relief that defines her male figures. In the context of the exhibition as a whole, the very lack of facture in Amina spoke to the politics embedded in the surrounding portraits. A hair-braiding salon is precisely the sort of neighborhood business that the economics of gentrification seems destined to erase. Against these impersonal forces, Casteel positions the human body, palpable and present. Here I am, her subjects say. Here we are. There is a quiet power to being a body in the street, if also an inherent risk. In the exhibition’s final work, Memorial, a massive funeral bouquet sticks out from a sidewalk trash can, directly below a traffic light. A livery cab whizzes by. Pink and white roses burst out from the canvas. For many to discard such an elaborate flower arrangement so unceremoniously would be unthinkable, but some people have attended too many funerals. 

Colby Chamberlain