Elijah is pink and Ato is gold. Jiréh is a minty green and Galen a deep emerald. Fallou’s brother, whose name we don’t learn in Jordan Casteel’s set of paintings now at the Denver Art Museum, is a chalky blue.
And, of course, they’re all black, like nearly every subject Casteel captures in her attention-getting museum debut. African-Americans, Africans in America, people with various backgrounds whose skin color makes them different in white America.
Casteel elevates them in that particular way the art world defines uplift, by painting their portraits. Queens and kings get their portraits painted, so do saints, martyrs and the heroes of every revolution. Jesus Christ, Mona Lisa, George Washington: They all get their immortal clout from the fact that an artist froze their gaze for eternity.
Casteel keeps the stare, but jettisons the artifice that empowers traditional portraits. There are no halos around her subjects or crowns on their heads; they’re not surrounded by the trappings of wealth or kills from the latest hunt. Instead, they sell T-shirts on street corners, sit on folding chairs, ride subway cars. They curl up on sofas or lean against storefront windows.
And Casteel paints them with the abandon of a 21st century artist who has been freed from the bonds of realism by generations of abstracters. She is a daughter of Harlem, where she lives and finds her subjects these days, but the offspring of Impressionists like van Gogh and Fauvists like Matisse, and of street painters like Jacob Lawrence and of intimate portraitists, like Alice Neel. She calls lines and color as she sees them, and if she sees a man’s skin as green, then green it is.
It’s all there in the 29 paintings of “Returning the Gaze,” assembled by DAM’s contemporary curator Rebecca Hart. In the face of “Harold,” backlit by a storefront and rendered in blue-gray, or in “Timothy,” kicked back on a sidewalk and wearing a “Black is Beautiful” T-shirt. Or in “Fatima,” in her hajib and red-and-bue sneakers, who squats by a food truck selling doughnuts.
“Returning the Gaze” is Casteel’s major museum debut and it returns her to Denver, where she was born and raised and attended East High School.
She went on to Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., and then to the Yale School of Art for a graduate degree, where her series, “Visible Man,” featuring portraits of black men, naked and in comfortable domestic settings, won her wide attention.
That was in 2014, the same year as the riots in Ferguson and images of black men in the media were highly politicized, to say the least. Casteel’s matter-of-fact depictions offered a different view. There was “Elijah” propped up casually in his bed; “Jireh,” sitting on the edge of his couch, arms folded; and “Galen,” hanging out on the checkered linoleum floor of his kitchen.
Casteel’s work confronted the moment, but addressed something larger, not just offering a counter argument to current events but resetting the whole idea of portraiture so that it mirrored a more diverse world.
It found its power in the everyday, in something we might call a passive activism, and Casteel continues to mine that strength in her newer work. She walks around Harlem taking pictures of the things she sees, not setups or rarities, but the people she passes by, befriends, and talks into photographs that she brings back to her studio and paints in oil.
To be sure, there’s more to it then simply reporting. Casteel has a point of view, an aim to put the focus on what she has called the “easily unseen.” And she paints her subjects large, almost life-size rather than scaled down like most portraits. Her signature pieces are rarely less than 6 feet in at least one of their dimensions.
They would be hard not to notice, and so they have been, by gallerists, curators and collectors. She’s represented by Casey Kaplan, one of the top art galleries in Chelsea. She’s been mentored by Thelma Golden, of the Studio Museum in Harlem, and commended by critics like Jerry Saltz. Her objects are in the collections of places like the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
Recent articles in Vogue magazine and The Art Newspaper note that her work has been purchased by singer Alicia Keys and rapper Swizz Beatz. But her paintings, valued in the tens of thousands, are also selling well to non-famous, mainstream buyers — which means, in real language, white buyers — which likely puts her oversized portraits of black men in some very interesting living rooms, where they will not be “easily unseen.”
The DAM exhibit is fuel for the upward trajectory of Casteel’s career. Museum shows are important milestones that enhance reputations and bring artists wider audiences, outside of the insular art world. They give work a chance to be seen, to have a real impact.
As a (very early) career retrospective, “Reflecting the Gaze” puts Casteel’s work in perspective. It shows where she came from, where she’s been and how she continues to expand on her ideas. It doesn’t feel like a sentimental homecoming, but as a strategically curated introduction to an international artist who is making a splash.
Looking at the work, a viewer does wonder what comes next, but it’s a question pondered with confidence given the evidence on the walls. Adding to that optimism: Casteel just turned 30 this year.
“Jordan Casteel: Returning the Gaze: continues through May 26 at the Denver Art Museum. Info at 720-865-5000 or denverartmuseum.org.