This Artist Wants You To See The Fullness Of Black Men’s Lives

Jordan Casteel’s large-scale portraits lend an intimacy and depth to a static mainstream narrative.

August 10, 2016
This Artist Wants You To See The Fullness Of Black Men’s Lives Photo by King Texas  

Locals line the block, a dense stretch of 125th Street between Adam Clayton Powell and Malcolm X boulevards. Men and women chat. Elders go about hawking homemade oils and creams. Kids play under the afternoon sun, charged with excitement. Up here, every one moves with a determined energy. It’s Harlem in late July. The commotion rises, bubbling into the third-floor window of Jordan Casteel’s studio, bringing the white interior to life. Photographs of black men — fathers and sons and brothers and uncles — pepper the high walls, where half-finished paintings rest. Curios cover her desk like stray confetti: a small potted plant, a mug with the words “Black Lives Matter” in bold lettering, an issue of HYCIDE magazine, unused paint brushes, Post-it notes, and pencils. The 27-year-old artist has worked out of this space for the last nine months, after she was selected as an artist-in-residence at The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York City’s renowned hub and incubator of black art. “I feel like this wall is my document of all the people that I have painted,” Casteel says, referring to the swirl of pictures that serve as the inspiration for her work. “Although the paintings move on, this is my way of holding onto a memory.”

Since her time at Yale, from which she graduated in 2014 with an MFA in Fine Art, Casteel has attempted to broaden our understanding of the Black Male through a series of paintings which depict black men in various states of composure — at home, in the barbershop, on the street. The paintings are deceptively striking: each one a negotiation of power, placement, and identity. Her latest body of work — featured in the Studio Museum’s “Tenses” exhibition — investigates the history of Harlem through the men who populate its streets. I ask her to tell me about these men, to tell me about their world. “I got plenty of stories about all of them,” she says, looking at the wall of photos. “I don’t even know where to begin.”

Growing up in Colorado, were you drawn to art at a young age?

I grew up in a family that was always involved in the arts. My grandmother actually was on the board for the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, so supporting of the arts always was around when I grew up, but it wasn’t necessarily something that I foresaw or had any inclination around being a profession long-term. It wasn’t until I got to grad school that I was like, ‘Oh okay, this could be something that I do.’

I studied sociology and anthropology in undergrad. I went to a small women's liberal arts college in Georgia — Agnes Scott. I was interested in social justice and education, and I truly didn't see art being something I could do with my life. It wasn’t until I studied abroad in Italy my during the second semester of my junior year. Italy was literally every Italian adventure I think I’ve ever heard of: I’m running down the mountain for cappuccinos and coming back and painting all day. That was my life, and thought I could do it forever. When I came back, I changed my major to studio art.

You mentioned wanting to previously work as an educator. Do you see your work now as a kind of education?


Not just for yourself, but for others?

Part of my learning process in my first year at Yale was trying to figure out the subject matter part of it — I was painting landscapes, and I think MFA programs really kind of push you to hone in on your thinking in a lot of ways. So by the time my second year rolled around, I felt like I found the subject matter, or felt confident in my ability to tie my language and my ability to speak about work or the world into my art practice and making. It was black men and portraiture was what did that for me. And I felt like people were having generative conversations and asking questions, and a lot of what teaching and education and learning is about is being able to ask a question and learn from it, to have some kind of desire to figure something out, or maybe not get all the answers, but trying to generate some sense of change or movement.

So what are you trying to figure out?

I’ve always been an observer, I’ve always been the person in a room who is watching things before I decide to step into it. I’m much more of an introvert than an extrovert, which I guess a lot of artists are. But in making, I’m able to kind of resolve my interactions with people, or the things that I want to understand about humanity that I might not get otherwise, so there’s an intimacy in the process of making, where it’s literally just me and my thoughts and my paint and my discovery, and then I’m coming out of it with this product that gets to live a whole other life. It’s really easy to rest in a conversation of “Jordan paints black men,” when my interest in environment and paint and color and subject matter in relation to those things means more to me, and are things that I’m really trying to discover on a greater level.

This Artist Wants You To See The Fullness Of Black Men’s Lives "Charles," 2016  
This Artist Wants You To See The Fullness Of Black Men’s Lives "Jared," 2016  

I’m glad you brought that up. I’m really interested in two things specifically in your work: the position your subjects take — how these men confront you head-on — and the vibrant colors that you use. With regard to the gaze of the subjects, there’s this duality: there’s an incredible vulnerability present within the work, but also an incredible feeling of power and strength that radiates from the positioning of each subject.

I am really intentional about the gaze, maintaining that sense of power and strength. I’m often thinking about the ways that these will function outside of my studio, and how they’ll live a life on their own in spaces where I can’t necessarily speak for them. But that their presence is made known in some ways. I’m really flexible about the way that they hold themselves or carry themselves, I’m literally encountering people and then being like, “Hey can I take your picture?” so there’s a ton of things that have to be negotiated in that time and space as I'm literally just getting to know someone. But the one thing I do ask is that they look at me. Selfishly, I think, the best way to connect with somebody is through looking them in the eye and actually acknowledging their presence. There’s a sense of openness that has to happen when you look somebody in the eye, and it’s a good memory place for me as I re-address that moment or that time and place and go back to this and be like “Okay, I remember what it felt like to look in that person’s eyes, and now I’m gonna create this painting as a signal to that experience and hope that somebody else can connect to it as well.”

It’s been a little hard for me to be up here since everything’s gone downstairs, because I felt like I built a community for myself up here. I had like a whole bunch of friends, you know? I refer to them by their first names, that’s one thing all the paintings — it’s like “That’s Leon, that’s Timothy.” There’s a friend of mine who came in here when the paintings were all up here, right before they went down, and she was like “Ahhh!” She was like, “It’s too much in here for me today, because I feel like they’re all staring at me intensely, and I’m not ready for that.” Whereas I really loved that, and I felt like they were in conversation with one another, I felt they were in conversation with me, and they forced whoever’s in the room with them to be in conversation with them.

And what’s the thought process behind the rich palettes that you use?

I just love color. I wish I had some great philosophical answer to that, but in terms of the overall palette decisions, there are things that are intuitive. Sometimes it’s more logical, like the painting that I’m working on right now is being really conscious of the David Hammons flag and the colors within it, so I built a palette with that in mind. There can be one color that feels triggering in the beginning that I build a whole palette around, but there’s usually a starting place that the rest evolves out of. But I literally just love color. Since I was a kid I was always a person who wanted my room to be bright yellow and bright red and bright green and bright periwinkle. I fought over a color, like a shade of periwinkle, with my mother for a very long time, and it needed to be perfect for me. And why that is? I’m not entirely certain, besides an aesthetic that I am just drawn to.

I think the actual play on color in terms of blackness and skin tone is a whole other thing that I am intentional about. Like, he’s purple, he’s green. The comments about the most recent body of work have been that they feel more naturalized, in terms of skin tone, more than my previous work. Although I feel like, if you look closely, they’re not, and a lot of the times I’m switching. So “Michael” downstairs, for example, has pretty white skin, like golden white skin in the painting, but he’s dark skinned in real life. I made that decision because I felt that that color would a) benefit the composition overall and help him stand out within the context of the rest of the environment, but b) because I'm interested in pushing the dialogue of blackness. Within my own family, the scope of what blackness looks like is really vast. In my experience at least, most black people I’ve encountered would say that that’s true of their families, you literally have a whole scope and range of literal color, and representing that in my paintings is important to me. I just allow myself to play, as it relates to each painting individually. Like, why green for him? Oftentimes I don’t have a whole great answer for that.

I remember the first time I encountered your work a few years ago, in 2014, right before your show Visible Men. It was this painting of a young man sitting in a kitchen; he was green. I remember thinking: I know this person. He seemed so familiar. As black folk, this is our default: the richness and the plurality within blackness — we span all shades and colors. And it’s interesting that you bring that out in different ways within your work.

Absolutely. And I love pushing the context of that, that what can feel familiar from one person can not be familiar to the next, the assumptions that we make on bodies. The first body of work that I did, those nudes in particular, I had a lot of them in my studio, and somebody had come for a studio visit and was like, “Oh you're just painting black men,” and then they were standing there, sort of verbalizing their thought process, and I was like, ‘Oh actually, he’s green and he’s blue.” The person kind of threw me, because I made all these assumptions that they just checked me on, and that’s interesting. I was really grateful for them to verbalize that process, because that is something that I’m interested in, like what did you project onto that body before you actually took the time to see and get to know it and investigate what’s important to them or what’s in their environment? It’s crazy to me how quickly we do that.

This Artist Wants You To See The Fullness Of Black Men’s Lives "Galen," 2014  
“I’m interested in pushing the dialogue of blackness.” —Jordan Casteel

How has your family informed your work and the people that you depict?

They’re everything, quite honestly. They’re the part that I rarely talk about in context to this work, but really generate all the inspiration for me, or the intimate heart part for me. The most vulnerable, and the most sacred is my family. My understanding of them always felt different than the rest of the world’s, and I felt that the time was now, the time has always been right to try to create a way to show them as I see them to the rest of the world. So as literally their sister, but as someone who knows my twin is super goofy and has a great sense of humor and a poet and have all this history and lineage with — walking down the street he doesn't necessarily encounter that same visibility. Those parts of him are invisible to a lot of people. I think it’s my role in relation to them that allows me to do this work. I don’t know how to verbalize it very well, because I don’t talk about it much. I’m really conscious oftentimes of protecting them and their stories, because I think it’s so easy for people to want to sensationalize the biography of people, as opposed to really trying to understand and see them as they are in this moment, in this time.

As someone who’s been writing professionally for six years, I rarely, if ever, write about my family. They’re sacred and special to me. I would never impose them in my work without their permission. Even if they approved, I would still be hesitant to engage the interiority of their lives, so I definitely understand that. It’s a weird balance.

It is! And the reality is that’s where we come from, it’s what inspires and gives us life to begin with. My journey for the first 18 years was basically at home; I was constantly around them, you know? The way that I saw the world was through their eyes, and sometimes not, maybe, but I didn't always understand. I still don't always understand. Somebody told me once that it felt like I was painting these men using them as surrogates to understand or build relationships. I think that’s an interesting question.

This Artist Wants You To See The Fullness Of Black Men’s Lives "Jonathan," 2014  
This Artist Wants You To See The Fullness Of Black Men’s Lives "Ato," 2014  

What’s the intent with this new body of work on display at The Studio Museum? Previously, your subjects were paired together, which invoked ideas of belonging and fellowship and brotherhood. Is there something specific you’re trying to convey by giving the platform to one person as opposed to a pair or trio? Maybe I’m reading too much into it.

No, I don't think there’s any such thing as reading too much into it. I think the beauty is other people can see things that sometimes I don’t, and there are things that maybe I thought about, and there are things that I haven’t and reveal themselves in time. The one thing I know for sure is that when I first came to Harlem, the thing that attracted me most was the way that people inhabit the street as if it were their home. They literally surround themselves with goods and things that matter to them, and they camp out, in essence, for the entire day, or sometimes for life. A lot of people have been there, or set spaces that become theirs. It’s interesting to me how claiming of space happens within the community of vendors, and even when people aren’t selling things, they’re like chilling under a tree with their friends every day. I was more interested in stepping into the street than I was being really conscious of whether they were alone or together.


What I was finding is that often, the people that I encounter in the street aren’t necessarily sharing their booth with someone else. It’s like, “Here's my booth or my table setup, and then there’s my homeboy across the street,” but they’re not necessarily sitting next to each other and sharing space in that same way. So at the time that I was doing the Brothers series, it was out of a painting of my twin brother that that conversation started. I finally went to the source and asked my twin brother to sit for me, and my nephew happened to be there, his son, and I was like, ‘You know what, actually let’s do both of you guys? How about we just try that?’ I loved the painting so much, and felt like there was something there to be explored, that I started to investigate the relationships between. So similarly, I think the most consistent thing in my practice has been that things happen more intuitively and more as a matter of happenstance than anything else. Circumstance, where I am, and who I’m encountering, and then the work kind of evolves out of it. The question has been, What's next? And I’ve had a really hard time answering that, because I’m not entirely sure where inspiration is gonna come next. I know that it comes to me everyday in the people that I meet, whether it becomes a whole, concise body of work or not, where people can say, “That’s Jordan's Harlem Series, those are her Nudes” — I didn’t intentionally have those things happen, and I definitely thought that, coming into Harlem, maybe I’d paint women for the first time, and then that didn’t happen. Until things feel right, I don’t know what’s gonna happen.

The history of black Americans is one of displacement and migration. Our history is often one that is forced upon us, and we’re often caught in the throes of that. Do you see your work as a comment on history in any way? Or as a way of archiving black history?

Yes. I feel that most explicitly in this body of work, primarily because of Harlem, in the year I’ve even just been here, which I am contributing in some ways to the shift that’s happening. In my short time here, seeing people that I thought I saw everyday disappear, and there is a documentation that’s happening literally through these paintings. And I felt that the night of the opening, a lot of the guys came to the opening and one of the paintings has this building, the museum, in the background of it, and this building is literally getting torn down in a year and will be something different. There are so many markers, there was somebody who’s an architect who came to see the work, who mentioned how there were very specific references in the work for him, places that have or do or don’t change in time. He’s like, “I remember when Lenox Saphire in your painting was something else, and I bet you in ten years it’s gonna be even something else,” and I love that.

These [paintings] have been, and are, a document. I'll be curious, in terms the black domestic, when I was painting in people’s homes, whether or not that will show to be a marker of time and space and blackness. Art generally proves as a document or documenting force. I can only hope that I get to contribute to that, to be enough a part of history that people can look to the work to be like, “This is a marker of this time or when this was happening in history.”

This Artist Wants You To See The Fullness Of Black Men’s Lives "Miles and Jojo," 2015  
This Artist Wants You To See The Fullness Of Black Men’s Lives