Denver native Jordan Casteel, granddaughter of civil rights leader Whitney Moore Young, Jr., is an African American figurative painter who now lives and works in New York City’s Harlem. She creates large-scale paintings mostly of Black men in the communities where she lives. She paints them in single portraits, pairs, or groups of three in a crisp, realistic style using vibrant colors. Her figures are shown indoors in domestic settings, in the workplace, or on the streets working or relaxing. She chooses these people “for their energy, for the life they were giving” and portrays them as part of a family or as part of a vibrant community.
Before turning to art, Casteel originally studied sociology and anthropology at Agnes Scott College in Georgia. Then she took a painting class during a semester in Cortona, Italy in 2010 and switched majors. She received her M.F.A. in Painting and Printmaking at Yale in 2014. She is an Assistant Professor of Painting in the Department of Arts, Culture, and Media at Rutgers University in Newark.
Casteel has always embedded herself in the social fabric of the neighborhood where she lives. When she was an artist in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2015, she began to paint portraits of street vendors and small-business owners. She now considers Harlem to be her transplanted, adopted home. “I knew I could call Harlem home before it was my home. There was a procession for my grandfather, Whitney Moore Young, Jr., when he passed that went down 125th Street. My blood and my ancestors set foot here long before I did and created a home for me before I even had to create a home for myself.
When she paints people, she usually places them outdoors in Harlem, anchored by street life. She shows how some of these people have carved out a space for themselves on sidewalks to relax with friends or to work. Many are vendors, selling t-shirts, scarves, hats, second hand clothing, or household items. Her 2016 “Glass Man Michael” shows Michael sitting by a folding table, displaying an arrangement of various glass objects: bowls, vases, ornaments, and drinking glasses. The difficult economics of city life is seen in this painting by the text written on the wall behind his table. “Harlem – not for – sale fight-back” is shown along with graffiti and a boarded up storefront.
Casteel paints from photographs, often taking a hundred or more pictures of her sitters in their own environment and uses some of them as a reference image. Thus, her paintings have a sense of the observational quality of street photography. Her slightly skewed compositions hint at activity just outside the frame. She paints her portraits life-size or larger, presenting figures either deliberately posed or else glimpsed as if passing by on the street. Sometimes she loosely sketches her figures and leaves some areas of the composition bare for dramatic effect.
This past February, 2020 she had her first solo museum exhibition, “Within Reach” at New York’s New Museum. The exhibit had to be shut down because of the pandemic but is scheduled to reopen and remain on view into January 2021.
Her work is in the collections of The Studio Museum in Harlem, Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver Art Museum, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and others.