BIGGIE SMALLS APPEARS ON THE COVER of the latest edition of Frieze magazine. The slain rapper is wearing one of his signature Cosby sweaters, a gold chain and dark shades. His image is emblazoned on a red hoodie worn by Quentin, an African American man who is the subject of a painting by Jordan Casteel. Holding his mobile phone he gazes directly at the viewer.
Jordan’s captivating portrait illustrates an article about figurative painting in New York, which is featured in the November/December issue of Frieze. “Acts of Recognition” focuses on fall exhibitions by Lisa Brice, Peter Doig, Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, Mark Thomas Gibson, Emily Mae Smith, and Casteel, and considers “critical questions about which bodies we depict, for whom and to what end.”
The article by David Geers begins by contextualizing figurative painting today: “Painting has always seemed torn between an inward and an outward gaze: between vision and perception, between our dreams and the concrete, highly politicized conditions framing our comprehension of the world and what it might become. Today is no diﬀerent. After a period in which the medium has been dominated by process-based abstraction, the ﬁgure—and representation with it—is ascendant again.”
“Painting has always seemed torn between an inward and an outward gaze: between vision and perception, between our dreams and the concrete, highly politicized conditions framing our comprehension of the world and what it might become.”
— David Geers, Frieze Magazine
The London-based contemporary art magazine could have selected any of the six artists for the cover. Doig, for example, is a critically renowned, British-born artist whose paintings sell for millions. The fact that New York-based Casteel’s work graces the cover makes a statement about the significance of her emerging practice and the fresh perspective she brings to figurative painting.
A recent alum of the Studio Museum in Harlem’s Artist-in-Residence program (2015-16), Casteel gives visibility to black men who populate the streets surrounding the museum, people she describes as “easily unseen.” She walks the neighborhood to identify her subjects—street vendors or a man with waist-length dreadlocks walking two dogs, for example. She spends time connecting with them, photographs them, and then when she returns to her studio, closely examines the images. The photographs document both her subjects and their surroundings, capturing illuminating details—such the image of Biggie on Quentin’s hoodie—which brings their character to the fore and helps define the portraits.
Casteel joined Casey Kaplan about a year ago and her first exhibition with the New York gallery was presented this fall. “Jordan Casteel: Nights in Harlem” featured new paintings she made after photographing her subjects at night. Quentin’s portrait was on view. There was a triple portrait titled “Cowboy E, Sean Cross, and Og Jabar,” and images of local wine shop owners and a pair of t-shirt vendors, among others.
IN A NEW VIDEO by Art21, Casteel talks about how she connects with her Harlem subjects.
“I consider myself to be an more of an introvert than extrovert, but I can flip on, like adrenaline can kick in and I am able to perform extroversion really well. So I often try to find my kindred spirits in the world and usually it’s like somebody who’s standing off to the side,” she says.
“There is a certain amount of mindfulness that it requires to slow down enough to feel what it is to be present with someone in a moment.”
“I often try to find my kindred spirits in the world and usually it’s like somebody who’s standing off to the side.” — Jordan Casteel, Art21
The men featured in the paintings attend the opening for her Casey Kaplan exhibition, marveling at how she has envisioned them on canvas. In the video, when Quentin sees his portrait, he says “I feel like a superstar. I can’t stop blushing.”
Geer writes in Frieze that “politicized gazing” inspires Casteel’s “moving” portraits: “‘What does it mean to offer someone visibility in a world that is constantly rendering their humanity invisible?’ Casteel once pondered (Elle, March 13, 2017). Her answer lies in portraits that radiate generosity on the part of sitter and artist alike, wedding an urgent political project with painting that forges intimacy between strangers.” CT
TOP IMAGE: Installation view of JORDAN CASTEEL, “MegaStarBrand’s Louie and A-Thug,” 2017 (oil on canvas). | via Casey Kaplan
Artist Jordan Casteel reflects on the complex dynamic between herself and her subjects while adjusting to the recent commercial success of her paintings. | Video by Art21