Scale can make all the difference in a serious collection of figurative portraits or studies, a scale that mimics life size gives figures a type of solid monumentality that invites them into the viewer’s space. For centuries this life size figurative scale was reserved for portraits of kings, gods and mythic personages, here at Sargent’s Daughters on 179 East Broadway in New York, Jordan Casteel uses it as a tactic for humanization. In her exhibition of large scale oil paintings, most around 5 by 6 feet, titled Brothers, Casteel brings before the viewer the faces and forms of African American men, inhabiting the unique environments, really interior spaces, to which they belong. Walking through the gallery, you could see that the diverse crowd present at the opening, faced each painting as if it was an encounter with a familiar friend or new acquaintance. The textured application of paint in works like Crockett Brothers and Ashamole Brothers, renders the surfaces and interiors with an impasto that makes them tangible and felt. Within Three Lions this becomes evident as intimate scene links with figural interrelation, expression and gesture.
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Considering each piece, one must step back and meet the gaze of the figures portrayed, take the time to consider them first as individuals then as intricately linked, as family, as brothers, overall part of a community. The figures are portrayed with key objects that represent their passions and interests: the young Crockett brother dexterously grips his saxophone and the Ashamole brothers balance a basketball between them. First by intuition, then by reflection it becomes clear that Casteel is deploying crucial and timely tactics of humanization, we are allowed into these intimate spaces in order to point up a positive type of visibility that complicates black male subjective. For Casteel concerns herself directly with a contemporary post-Ferguson reality, wherein civil rights struggle is back at the fore and black males have become highly visible within media and news, reduced to being antagonists or victims. When social progress comes under fire, it is art’s job to intervene and create a space for reflection: this exhibit, these paintings, are Casteel’s intervention…
A most necessary one.