Harlem-based artist Jordan Casteel is one of the three current artists in-residence at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Her patiently detailed, large-scale figurative paintings instantly demand one’s attention with their dynamic and vibrant swaths of color. Born in Denver, Colorado she received her MFA from Yale School of Art in New Haven, Connecticut in 2014. Just a few months after graduating, Casteel launched herself into the New York City art scene with her first solo exhibition, Visible Man, at Sargent’s Daughters. Just a year later, in 2015, her second solo show, Brothers, opened in the same space.
I got the wonderful opportunity to visit her studio in Harlem and see her enchantingly monumental works in person while discussing her motivations behind making art that is at once personal and intimate as well as approachable, speaking to a broad audience.
- The Studio Museum in Harlem describes your work as “black masculinity in a domestic space.” Can you explain what drove you to pursue this theme?
I remember having this very specific reaction to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in Trayvon Martin’s trial: I need to start becoming more proactive in making work that directly relates to a conversation I care about and that directly relates to my family members such as my twin, my father, my older brother—the people in my life closest to me. I felt I needed to make a body of work that dealt with the humanity of men in my life, black men specifically, and that would show the vulnerable, sensitive side of them that I would encounter when at home or in intimate personal spaces.
- Your first solo show in New York City at Sargent’s Daughters, Visible Man, speaks to this theme. Did it achieve what you wanted it to?
I was super excited to be given this opportunity and equally as excited to see how well-received it was. I felt like people were having the conversations I wanted them to have around those bodies, in that they were talking about humanity as it related to these black men at a time when Michael Brown had just been killed a few days before that show opened. I had been showing these bodies outside of a greater media dialogue and trying to recontextualize them into a more sensitive conversation. People were able to think about it more critically, so yes, I’d say that show went really well.
- Why did you choose to paint the men as nude?
The nudes happened initially in an effort to counteract what clothing can do in detracting from understanding the essence of somebody. There can be insignias or stereotypes that people want to project based off of what someone is wearing, which I feel blocks people from understanding who these people are. I was watching a lifetime of men being misunderstood and seen as villains and hyper-sexualized.
- And then it seems that not too long after Visible Man you were back at Sargent’s Daughters having your second show Brothers. Can you say what you were looking at differently with this show?
I was really focused on expanding the conversation on black men to becoming one about their relationships with each other. I was thinking about multiple figures—fathers, sons, brothers, and cousins. What does it look like when the space is shared intergenerationally?
- Were both of these bodies of work very personal to you?
Definitely. Most of these guys are my friends, family and people I know from Denver. I decided to explore some of the men who had been directly influencing this practice for me in my personal life, and representing them felt important in this time and space. My inspiration almost always directly relates to what I’m around and who I’m around and engaging with.
For me it’s about capturing an essence of people, their souls. One of the first things I paint in every work is the eyes because I do feel that is a very significant and telling part of the person.
- What does your work process look like?
I am very regimented in the way that I work. I am a 10-6 workday sort of person and oftentimes include weekends in my schedule. The way I make paintings is first I photograph my subjects. After, I come into the studio and create my own palate using color aids, then I begin sketching on the canvas, and slowly fill the rest in. A way for me to keep a sense of immediacy in these paintings, without having a live model, is to allow myself to instantly react to what I see and just let my hand go. There’s a wonkiness to these paintings, in that, I’m not hyper obsessed with fixing minute details or having everything completely anatomically correct. This is also the space where I allow myself to let go. There are moments where painting becomes meditative for me and then other moments when there is more of a freedom and looseness. All of the different elements of the painting manifest where I am mentally and emotionally in certain times and spaces as I make the piece. My commitment is just to see the paintings everyday that I can, to be actively in their presence within this space. They become a direct community for me, especially when they start to pop up and have conversations with each other.
- I love your rich color palate; it’s what instantly drew me to your paintings. Is there a specific reason why you work with such vibrant colors, especially in the depiction of your subject’s bodies?
I’m interested in having a conversation about color and how it relates to black skin. I am thinking about blackness as being multifaceted and how it is often times attributed to different tones and hues. I am interested in what we project onto bodies as it relates to color before we even truly see the person. Color is a fun way for me to have that conversation, and besides I just love color. My mother told me that when I was little girl, I was obsessed with rainbows.
- What is this new project you’re working on?
There is an essence of Harlem that I’m trying to capture. It’s a huge shift for me. Prior to this body of work, all my work has been inside the domestic space and this work is moving to exteriors. It’s going back to individuals and so it’s very important for me to try and make connections. Community is such an integral part of my work, so I’m trying to work on a new set of relations, here, in my community in Harlem. I am shaking people’s hands, I am introducing myself, and taking a moment to get to know who these people are.
- Has it been hard finding people to paint and then approaching them?
A lot of these people I’m running into on my walk from the studio to home. It’s taken practice but its not always easy for me. I think there is a certain element, as women in New York, to sort of look down and engage with men in a really particular way—there’s a shutting down that I have embodied somewhat since moving here, which I have to consciously counteract when doing this work. It’s hard but it’s also amazing to see how as soon as you cross that threshold with people just how much they can give back.
- Do you have an overarching aim for your work?
As many people that I can touch with these paintings, the better. I want these paintings to be a slow read of somebody. I want them to be carefully understood, respected, valued, and seen. How do you make somebody seen in a world where, in many aspects, they have been invisible for centuries? And as a woman, what does my lens add to that conversation? As a sister, as a daughter, as a friend—how do I begin to show everyone else what I see and have experienced as a black woman to my black brothers? The hope is that these works can cross boundary lines of many facets—the broader an audience the more I will feel that I have achieved a goal.
Casteel’s newest work will be shown at The Studio Museum in Harlem during their Artists-in-Residence exhibition, opening July 14th.
Can’t wait until July to see her work? The museum will be having open studios on April 17th from 1-4pm.