Jordan Casteel, Marcus and Jace, 2015, oil on canvas, 72 × 54".

Jordan Casteel, Marcus and Jace, 2015, oil on canvas, 72 × 54".

Jordan Casteel

Two portraits placed early in Jordan Casteel’s first solo museum show, in her hometown of Denver, feature sitters in nondescript environments. Mom, 2013, employs a muted palette. The background is beige, with plum scumbling in the upper corners; the absence of background details focuses the viewer on the figure. Casteel’s mother sits in a wooden chair, her eyes closed, head resting on her folded hands. Her face is a delicate patchwork of tans, browns, and grays, the scarf or sweater in her lap a complex, gestural pattern that repeats in the jewels of her bracelet. She doesn’t acknowledge us; we are observing a moment of quietude, rest, and contemplation. The more recent portrait, Twins, 2017, conveys another mood entirely. Two toddlers, one clad in red and the other in pink, a Minnie Mouse blanket draped across their laps, are strapped into a double stroller and sit facing the viewer. Exuberance is conveyed via the perky polka dots of the stroller’s hoods and the cotton-candy-pink backdrop—which gives only the slightest nod to a space beyond the foreground. The baby on the left is fast asleep, his relaxation evident all the way down to his dangling fingers and feet. The child on the right, by contrast, confronts the viewer with startling self-possession.

Casteel’s skill for empathizing with her subjects, for conveying their likenesses such that viewers feel a connection to them, is evident in all of her portraits. But it is her sitters’ particular surroundings, the spaces they inhabit regularly, that animate her large canvases. An earlier work, Marcus and Jace, 2015, depicts Casteel’s friend Marcus and his son in their Denver barbershop, where college pennants adorn the red walls. Casteel often uses unexpected or seemingly unrealistic colors when rendering her figures. Sometimes, as in Marcus and Jace or in Harold, 2017, a visible light source provides a logical impetus. In other works, especially in her “Visible Man” series of paintings of male nudes, begun in 2014 while she was a graduate student at the Yale School of Art, figures take on expressive colorings, their skin radiating pastel pinks and purples or various shades of saturated green. Many of the subjects for “Visible Man” were Casteel’s classmates, black men who, as the playwright Jiréh Breon Holder explains in an accompanying wall text, were relatively few on Yale’s New Haven campus: “Jordan’s paintings ‘saw’ something in us, and we were able to see something in each other that was and remains deeply meaningful.”

Casteel’s most recent works continue to record—and thereby create—community. Now a resident of Harlem, Casteel approaches people she meets on the streets, people who are working or resting on stoops or chatting with friends, and snaps a series of photographs of them (Casteel’s talent as a photographer who puts her subjects at ease should not go unnoted here). She then reworks those images on canvas, choosing which details to include, which to sketch in only slightly, and which to exclude entirely. It would be easy to ascribe an agenda of revolution or resistance to Casteel’s paintings by selectively highlighting certain details in her works: a poster featuring black men killed by police, a BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL T-shirt. Yet prolonged looking will evince a subtler form of power in her images. Casteel’s aggregation of so many details—advertisements for AriZona iced tea, a Marvin Gaye album cover, a POMPETTE WINES T-shirt—is a political act, for the very reason that the artist finds them all worthy of inclusion in large-scale paintings. Her subjects deserve loving attention, but so do those objects that they live with every day—and this in itself is a radical idea.