As a self-professed impatient painter, Jordan Casteel is keen to put oil to canvas. Walking into her sunlit section within the artist-in-residence studios at The Studio Museum in Harlem, her large canvases and drawings were mounted upon the walls in various stages of progress, I was surprised to learn she felt behind schedule. Since receiving her MFA from Yale in 2014, Casteel has focused mainly on the black male figure. This subject matter continued on through exhibitions at Sargent’s Daughters (2014 and 2015), and now it reaches the Studio Museum. A few months since beginning her residency and moving to Harlem, Casteel continues to challenge the depiction of the black male figure through her large expressive portraits, but Harlem has already left its impression.
Casteel photographs her subjects first, and then works from the image. Her most advanced work-in-progress (excluding her large scale drawings, which are a new endeavor) is a painting of two young men, Patrick and Omari (2015), casually seated outside on high chairs. As the only painted-in section of the canvas—at least at the time I last saw it—the central figures are painted a muted shade of purple. Next to the canvas on the wall is an assortment of color swatches she intends to use for this specific work. For Casteel, color choices reflect each individual portrait’s experience. Casteel’s experience with the sitters, as well as the sitters’ very own interaction between themselves, is paired with a particular color palette that, for her captures that moment in time. The men’s gazes and postures are open, yet careful. The atmosphere is intimate, regardless of finding themselves outside, within a public space. Here lies Casteel’s most significant change from her previous oeuvres, moving from the interior to the exterior. Harlem has lured her outside, with its melodic cacophony and wide-ranging cast of characters. The exterior setting, as oppose to the domestic setting, removes the element of comfort and vulnerability. In our current sociopolitical climate, stepping outside is akin to marching into a battlefield, where threats range from verbal to physical. So in presenting her subjects on the streets of Harlem, Casteel records and shares the intimacy of these portrait experiences within the abrasive outside world, a space that is desperately in need of her sincere portraits as antidotes. Her paintings are remedies for the dissociation of the black male figure with an actual human with feelings, aspirations, concerns, and fears.
Casteel may or may not present her Harlem subjects in a domestic setting over the course of her residency at the Studio Museum. The only certain elements within her paintings (and drawings) are the consistent portrayals of intimacy, thoughtfulness, and power. Intimacy, in encountering, documenting and getting to know her subjects. Thoughtfulness, in the selection of color palettes pertinent to the singular experience she captures between her sitters. And power, in subverting the dehumanization of the black male figure in the domestic space, and now the public space.