In 2014, Jordan Casteel graduated from Yale with an MFA and had her first solo exhibition, Visible Man, at Sargent’s Daughters in New York (August 13–September 14, 2014). The show consisted of larger-than-life portraits of young, fit Black men, all unclothed, in a domestic interior, surrounded by banal objects (tea kettle, photographs, disco ball, blankets, books), looking intently at the viewer. Using green, turquoise, or earth red to paint some of her subjects, Casteel’s paintings infused the documentarian nature of her work (based on her photographs) with an imaginative challenge regarding the visibility and invisibility of Black men in the United States. In that well-received exhibition, Casteel established herself as a realist documentarian of Black lives, who used a camera initially to define her subject matter. However, in contrast to artists who rely on a camera, she is too in love with paint and what it could do to be called a photorealist. That, and her willingness to break free from the photograph’s naturalistic color palette and use blue as a skin color, underscored her refusal to play it safe. Nor did she stay with that subject, as she quickly expanded her project to paint the inhabitants of a particular neighborhood (Harlem), which shares something with Martin Wong’s paintings of New York’s and San Francisco’s Chinatown storefronts and the inhabitants of Manhattan’s Lower East Side Latino community.
A lot has happened to Casteel, and in her art, since that first, eye-opening exhibition. Her work has been the subject of two museum exhibitions, Jordan Casteel: Returning the Gaze at the Denver Art Museum (February 2–August 18, 2019), curated by Rebecca Hart, and Jordan Casteel: Within Reach at the New Museum (February 19, 2020–January 3, 2021), curated by Massimiliano Giono. Together, these comprehensive surveys showcased Casteel’s recurring subjects, based on photographs she takes of friends and family, cropped views of people looking at their cellphones, mothers or fathers with their children on public transportation, people selling their wares or sitting outside on the sidewalks of Harlem, pairs of women and men, store owners, and her students at Rutgers-Newark.