Casteel was born and raised in Denver; she’s the daughter of Lauren Casteel, a social-justice advocate, and Charles Casteel, a prominent attorney. Her maternal grandparents were Margaret and Whitney Young, important figures in the American civil-rights movement. Although Whitney Young died long before Jordan Casteel was born and her grandmother passed away ten years ago, when Casteel was just out of her teens, she sees herself as a product of their legacy. And through their art collection, she was exposed to the work of some of the most important African-American artists of the twentieth century — including Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden and Faith Ringgold.
Studio Museum in Harlem in 2015 and 2016. DAM contemporary curator Rebecca Hart was already aware of Casteel by then and sought her out at the Studio Museum, where she got the idea of presenting a solo at the museum. Preparations for Returning the Gaze began two and a half years ago, before several of the pieces in it had even been painted.
Although the show has not been arranged chronologically, it does start off with the oldest works and ends with the newest. But a sensational body of early paintings has been installed near the end, which makes sense, as they are male nudes, and would be a shocking way to start the show. They would also misrepresent what Casteel is doing.
Casteel does portraits, typically monumental ones that are much bigger than life-sized. Until the last century, the portrait was the domain of the white gentry, and as a result, the concept is heavy with the weight of injustice. But Casteel alters the somewhat tainted medium to her own ends. Almost all of her portraits depict black men, though a few are women, and she was at least partly influenced in her selection of this subject by the Black Lives Matter movement. She has written about her trepidation over adding her own vision to the already well-established African-American figural tradition, which pushed her to create her distinctive signature style. Still, the influence of spiritual mentors is evident in her paintings, particularly that of Kerry James Marshall and, even more so, Alice Neel.
All of Casteel’s works from these past five years are pretty stylistically tight, but there are some distinctions, depending on the specific subjects. The early works focus on family members and close friends depicted in cozy indoor settings. Also set indoors are those early male nudes, but the subjects here are men who answered a call for models from Yale’s theater department, so they were strangers to the artist. During her residency at the Studio Museum, Casteel broke away from the comforts of Denver’s living rooms and the apartments of fellow Yalies and moved to the sidewalks of Harlem, where she captured people on the streets. The first of these paintings were set in daylight, but she soon turned to twilight and evening views. Casteel was also concerned with landmark African-American businesses, like Sylvia’s, a famous Harlem restaurant.
At the end of the show, where some of the most recent works are on view, Casteel reveals that she is exploring different directions in her figural paintings. In several, the sitter’s faces are outside the margins of the picture or otherwise hidden, which is radically different from those paintings in which the sitter’s eyes look right at you. Several of these newer paintings zoom in on the model’s laps as they sit on the subway; save for their beautifully detailed hands resting on their seated legs, the figures are anonymous.
Photos of Casteel’s paintings don’t do them justice. Neither their surprisingly magisterial size nor their incredibly inviting surfaces come through until you stand right in front of them. Which you’ll certainly want to do.
Jordan Casteel: Returning the Gaze, through August 18, Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-913-0131, denverartmuseum.org.