"Hi, my name is Jordan. What’s yours?"
It’s the icebreaker that artist Jordan Casteel uses whenever she stops strangers on the streets of her neighborhood in Harlem. “I am a painter, and I have been working on this project,” she says, with her disarming manner. “Would you be interested in participating?”
More often than not, these strangers are African-American men whom Casteel approaches with her proposal. And nine times out of 10, they are willing subjects, embarking on a collaboration with her that results in one of her oversized, colorful figurative works—and the men’s eventual enshrinement on the walls of art galleries and museums. The paintings have been getting critical attention in art circles, most recently for her solo exhibition, Nights in Harlem, held last fall in New York City at the Casey Kaplan gallery.
Casteel, an assistant professor in the Department of Arts, Culture, and Media at Rutgers University–Newark since 2016, is part of a new generation of African-American painters who are looking at race in response to the historical absence of nonwhites in Western painting. They are receiving lots of attention, exemplified by the stir that accompanied the unveiling of the official White House portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. The first couple, connoisseurs of work by African-American artists, had selected the painters Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald to create their likenesses. Noting the popularity of this art movement, the New York Times declared that “painters like Jordan Casteel … have found success with a form that was long considered unfashionable.”
To start the process, Casteel takes photographs of her subjects, selecting representative shots from which to create a composite for the environment in which her subjects will appear. “The backgrounds in the paintings are important,” says Casteel. “And so is the environment that we put ourselves in. Our ease with ourselves is reflected in that which is around us, especially that which we choose to be around.”
In Crockett Brothers, one of Casteel’s 2015 oil paintings, two young African-American men sit side by side in identical winged-back chairs covered in a bright floral pattern. One sibling is resting a saxophone on the white-carpeted floor. Both men are barefoot. In Hamilton Cousins, another large oil painting created in 2015, two young men sit next to each other on a love seat on a hardwood floor. Like the Crockett brothers, the cousins appear unguarded, each in his own way engaging the person looking at them—Casteel, the viewer—with curiosity. Casteel relies on these unspoken conversations for the painting to work. This interplay reflects her concern, she says, with our diminishing sense of community and our inability to communicate with one another in this age of the smartphone.
The official White House portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, on view at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., were done by African-American painters Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald.
“What is fun about painting is that I can be a magician,” says Casteel, who moved to New York City after graduating from the Yale School of Art in 2014. “I don’t have to be stuck with what’s in that photograph. I can move things around and build a composition that best articulates the story of who somebody is.”
That somebody is likely a man who, like novelist Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, has known a lifetime of being disregarded and misunderstood. It’s a view that these men often internalize, and Casteel knows it all too well. Growing up in Denver, Colorado, she saw the impact of this dismissive gaze on her father and two brothers (she is the twin of the younger one). And she saw that their own perceptions of themselves were influenced by how the world saw them.
“The vulnerability of my family is something that people didn’t get to see and experience the way I did,” says Casteel, the daughter of a social activist mother and granddaughter of the civil rights leader Whitney Moore Young Jr. “My original intent was to share that view with the world, creating images that reflected what I knew best about these men: a very sensitive, vulnerable aspect to them.”
These busy days, Casteel splits her time between teaching at Rutgers–Newark and creating paintings in her midtown Manhattan studio for a solo exhibition, Jordan Casteel: Returning the Gaze, opening in January at the Denver Art Museum. The new work will certainly feature African-American men but also other subjects, such as women and still lifes. Casteel knows that expectations are rising, a pressure that she nonetheless manages through a strict regimentation of her time and energy.
“It’s been really exciting to have a platform for sharing my work, but it’s also been an out-of-body experience,” says Casteel about all the attention.
“There is a lot to balance and consider. And trying to intersect the three aspects of my life—my mental and physical wellness, teaching, and painting—has been challenging but super rewarding.”
For Casteel, applying brush to canvas allows her to enter a meditative state. She paints three to four days a week, usually from 11 a.m. to dusk. “There is a stillness that comes when I am in the studio, when normally we are all swirling in a pond of noise,” she says. “Painting keeps me happy; it’s hard not to feel joy.”
She replicates that reverie leading painting classes for her students at Rutgers–Newark on the top floor of Bradley Hall, with panoramic views of downtown Newark outside the large studio windows. Casteel feeds off of her students’ enthusiasm. She tries to be an inspiration while teaching them how to observe their world. Just as important is providing a safe place in which students can work through issues, personal and artistic, so that they can go out into the world with a better understanding of themselves, even if they never paint again.
“My teaching is a manifestation of what I have experienced in the world: my own failures and my own successes,” she says. “I offer myself as a guide, but I’m not providing a road map to life. The students have to create those road maps for themselves. I just explain how I did it.”
As a young girl and right through college, Casteel simply painted what she wanted to paint, unconsciously developing a style. She studied the liberal arts at Agnes Scott College. It was only after arriving at Yale to pursue a master of fine arts degree in painting and printmaking that she encountered art history and theory to a serious degree. By then, Casteel was, more or less, fully formed as a painter.
What may be more gratifying to Casteel than the reception of any painting is witnessing the emotional reaction of the men and women whom she invites to art openings to see their personas on the gallery walls. It’s the kind of attention they have never known. “My mom says that I have given these people the gift of immortality and visibility,” says Casteel. “A lot of these people feel like they are getting walked by every day.”
Fortunately for these people—and for us—Jordan Casteel didn’t walk by them.
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Rutgers Magazine.