On a recent Sunday, New York–based painter Jordan Casteel dropped by the Museum of Contemporary Art to lead a tour of her two works included in the exhibition “One Day at a Time: Manny Farber and Termite Art.” She was in L.A. en route to her hometown in Colorado for a 29-work solo survey, “Returning the Gaze,” at the Denver Art Museum.
At 30, Casteel is gaining recognition for a body of work that both documents her subjects and the rich particulars of a fixed time and place — and meditates on more profound, timeless truths of their existence. By her own estimation a “painter’s painter” who revels in formal details, saying, “It’s the relationships between brush stroke and texture and color that get me excited,” it’s her vision, as much as technical mastery, a kindness and intensity in the way she sees, that grabs you.
Known for exploring male subjectivity and masculinity in large, vibrant portraits that celebrate and complicate blackness, Casteel rejects reductive labels. “I feel really strongly that women are not absent from this work primarily because the maker — everything is being translated through my lens, as a female experience, my experience of the world.” Lately, she’s been painting more women, as well as cropped snippets of daily life she encounters on the subway; as always, she works from photos she takes herself.
Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, where Casteel was artist-in-residence in 2015, once described her as a landscape painter, which the artist warmed to: “It gives an expansiveness to my practice that is probably more inherently true to who I am than just being a portraitist or somebody who only paints black men. I’m about observing space.”
While at the Studio Museum, Casteel shifted from painting figures mostly in interior environments to embracing the dynamism and duality of public spaces. “It was clear people created a home for themselves on the streets in Harlem — that the spaces they occupied on the street very much functioned as if it were their home. They were very intentional about the things they were surrounding themselves by,” she said, noting Glass Man Michael, a street vendor depicted in one of the paintings at MOCA, was “the king of this.” Behind him, she pointed to the “inkling of the for-sale sign” that portends how gentrification will shift his relationship to this space.
In Casteel’s hands, even mundane objects — old signage, food trucks, the streets themselves — become things of remarkable beauty, without losing symbolic weight or contextual presence. Recalling the stories behind the work, and the subjects who have become her family, she said, “They come back, stand in front of the painting and say, ‘That’s me, I’m in a museum. … My life will now be documented and memorialized and cared for….’ As a person of color, I do think that is a really profound and important thing. And the glory that is mine is to be able to experience their joy. … I get to be a living part of their journey.” She thanked the two dozen or so attendees for being part of that, too. “I’m having a lot of these moments where I’m recognizing I never thought I would be here. … My dreams stopped somewhere else a long time ago.”
Through March 11 at MOCA Grand Avenue, downtown.