Jordan Casteel experienced her first major exhibition in the Denver area with her opening at the Denver Art Museum, on view until August 18, 2019. Considering the importance of eye contact in acknowledging and respecting another human being, Casteel’s show, titled Returning the Gaze, confirms the presence of the artist and her subjects in their community.
Upon entry to the gallery the viewer is greeted with an emotionally charged portrait of the artist’s mother, right next to a portrait of a colored man with a young child sitting in a waiting area and looking directly at the viewer. This heartwarming introduction to Casteel’s community is exemplified as their nearly life-sized portraits look back at the viewer with kindness. Although Casteel is painting exclusively black figures, some of their skin tones are rendered as green, red, or blue. Light reflections from each paintings environment bounce additional hues onto their skin, adding tints of yellow, pink, purple, orange, and nearly every other color on the wheel, which questions the viewers’ assumptions about skin tones, while also removing all doubt that the people depicted are people of color.
As the audience works their way through the exhibition, the large oil paintings shift to some of Casteel’s earlier nude models, some dating back to the beginning of her work in this series in 2014. Along with the work hang quotes on the wall from Ralph Waldo Emmerson’s book, Invisible Man. Considering the strong themes of searching for an identity and fighting stereotypes in the challenging time when American segregation and racism was at a height, within the book, the identity of Casteel’s nude models comes into question. Their confidence and ease in posing near bright light sources, brings an assurance of their visibility and willingness to return the gaze of the viewer onto their exposed bodies.
From a park bench to the bedroom, Casteel’s subjects all seem comfortable and calm in their environments. Their hands, which are often focal points, rest naturally in their laps or in the hands of a close companion. An additional detail that is not first noticed, but remains consistent throughout Casteel’s work, is simple linework that defines objects or spaces in the environments. The linework is a glimpse into Casteel’s process, which involves outlining her whole composition from photo references before filling in the shapes and forms with color, and contrasts greatly with the realistic and engaging faces or hands of the subject.
In her piece Harold, these outlines serve to create a greater sense of atmospheric with the background noises and movements simplified into shapes, antithesis to the stillness and detail of the subjects. With an old-style dressed gentleman seated in the foreground, and a younger modernly dressed man standing behind him, the relationship between the two is dynamic with questions of time, heritage, and the legacy of a culture.
Nearby in the exhibit is another pair of figures with an enticing relationship. The warmth of Yvonne and James is noticeable from a great distance, as this couple photographed on the streets of Harlem share tightly held hands and affectionate expressions. The single point perspective of the painting leads the eye down an empty street washed out in sunlight, and back to the warmth of the sitting figures. Although both are bundled up in winter clothing, their personalities and gentleness is clearly visible in their shifted postures to lean closer together while directing all of their attention to the viewer.
Moving to the back of the gallery the viewer finds additional portraits of the Harlem streets, as well as hand portraits from individuals on subways. Although the identity and gaze of the subway riders remain obscured, their attention and presence are not limited by the cropped views of the figure. A piece dominantly rendered in blues, called Lean, has only half the hand of a young child visible as it clutches the side of its adult companion. A sign on the subway wall reads, “Do not lean on the door” providing an additional reason for the child to seek warmth and comfort from its companion and allows the viewer to experience this comfort in witnessing the sentimental moment captured.
With each painting providing a confident and sympathetic frame for a historically maltreated group of people, Casteel exonerates the viewers into a modern perspective and association with colored people. While remaining true to her vision and message of human recognition and peaceful communities for people of all color, Casteel shows a willingness to explore the wide variety of faces that this includes and their natural habitats for interacting with one another. The genuinely of Casteel’s work is only experienced in its entirety in person, where the vibrant brushstrokes of these and human sized paintings will leave a lasting influence.