jordan casteel’s first museum show opens in denver

February 4, 2019
122 Picks

Jordan Casteel’s 2017 exhibit, Nights in Harlem, was one of that Fall’s must-see shows in New York, lifting the young, Denver-born painter’s pictures onto the covers of international art magazines. And with good reason. Casteel’s realist, oil portraits of Black men — inspired by her personal experience of the historic Black neighborhood in which she lived, and her understanding of “cultural truths” that seemed lost on too many — were not just sympathetic but insightful. They were filled with character, both the subjects’ and Casteel’s. This acclaimed work brought the 30-year-old artist into the conversations about the great continuum of Black portraiture, and the increasingly expansive nature of the contemporary Black renaissance.   

Jordan Casteel, “Q” (2017)

Now comes Jordan Casteel: Returning The Gaze, her first solo museum exhibition, which opened this past weekend at her hometown Denver Art Museum. It features paintings from over the expanse of a still-relatively short career that’s already seen Casteel participate in group shows at Harlem’s famed Studio Museum (where she was also an artist-in-residence) and at Mass MOCA, as well as a few examples of brand new work.

Jordan Casteel, “Mom Hand” (2014)

Casteel’s earliest paintings, captured in series such as Visible Man (2013-14) and Brothers (2015) portray family and close friends in intimate surroundings. By contrast, Nights in Harlem saw her step outside that small circle, and explore the denizens of her neighborhood, taking their photos by the artificial light of the street and the shops, then translate these onto the large canvases. In almost all these early cases, the subjects of her paintings were male.

Jordan Casteel, “Yahya” (2014)

“The intent of the paintings from my early works is to expose my vision of Black men as a sister, daughter, friend and lover,” says Casteel in the press release for Gaze. “That perspective is one full of empathy and love. I see the humanity and, in turn, I want audiences to engage with them as fathers, sons, brothers, cousins — as individuals with their own unique stories to share.”

Jordan Casteel, “Baayfalls” (2018)

The newest work included in Returning The Gaze shifts that perspective ever so slightly, remaining on the neighborhood streets, but now looking at Harlem’s female entrepreneurs. Whether that may be the matriarch in a family-operated Ethiopian restaurant, or Fallou Kalsôme Wadje, a woman who sells hats and jewelry on 125th Street outside the Studio Museum, whom Casteel depicted sitting next to her brother, visiting from Senegal. “Jordan, she really sees me. I felt beautiful,” says Fallou in the catalog. It is impossible not to feel the warmth. 

Jordan Casteel: Returning The Gaze is at the Denver Art Museum through August 18, 2019.