Appreciating the Underappreciated. Portrait paintings by Jordan Casteel
90 x 78 inches
Oil on Canvas
Jordan Casteel (b. 1989) is a figurative painter whose work focuses on portraying people of color, particularly Black men, with respect and nuance.
Jordan was born and raised in Denver, Colorado to a supportive family with two siblings, a twin and older brother. Her father was an attorney and her mother, Lauren Young Casteel, was the first Black woman to head a foundation in Colorado. Her mother is also the daughter of civil rights leader and visionary president of the National Urban League, Whitney Young.
Jordan left Denver to attend school in Atlanta, GA at Agnes Scott College, a small, private women’s liberal arts college. During orientation, after meeting with the college president and dean of students, Jordan’s mother took her to meet the cooking staff. “These are the people who will truly be taking care of you”, she said. Jordan became particularly close with one cook who baked her cakes for her birthday. They still speak to this day. This experience taught Jordan the value of seeing, appreciating, and building relationships with the seemingly ordinary and often underappreciated around us.
Jordan pursued a liberal arts education, with a balanced curriculum and few art classes. She wanted to become a great writer, critical thinker, and communicator as those skills would help her throughout her life, whichever career path she pursued. In many ways, she followed the model set by her mother, an expert communicator. In addition to her foundation work, Jordan’s mom also hosted a TV show in Colorado. She has always been an advocate for feeling pride in one’s voice and the power of sharing it.
It wasn’t until Jordan left the United States for a semester abroad in Italy that she discovered her love of painting. She found herself “happy in a way I hadn’t been before”. Upon returning, she changed her academic focus to studio art. She had found her passion. Now it was time to find her voice.
After graduating from college, Jordan moved back to Denver where she spent a year as a special education teacher. She was accepted into the master’s program at Yale, specializing in painting, and she started the two-year program in the fall of 2012. For Jordan, the transition to a master’s level painting program was not smooth. Many of her classmates had painted their whole lives with years of technical training. Jordan had painted for about three years. But what Jordan lacked in formal training she made up for with her inquisitive mind, strong sense of self, and a work ethic that helped her improve each day.
In the summer of 2013, George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Casteel was studying landscape painting in Massachusetts at the time. This event shaped her artist practice in significant ways, as she felt the desire to show men of color, particularly Black men like her twin and older brother as respectable, significant human beings. She wanted to counter the narrative reinforced daily through biased media outlets of Black men as hyper-masculine, sexualized and threatening. She would create artwork at large scale to be noticed. And her subjects would look directly back at the viewers.
“The only thing that’s super, super consistent about my paintings—outside of the subjects being Black men—is that their gaze is always outward. It’s intentionally so because I want there to remain a sense of active participation as the sitter, that they are actively participating in whatever conversation is happening around that painting. Also, that the person who owns the painting, or is looking at it, has to engage as well, or confront something, or make eye contact with someone that they might not have, otherwise.”
52 x 72 inches
Oil on Canvas
Jordan exhibited the work created during her MFA program in 2014 in an exhibition titled “Visible Man” at a gallery in downtown New York City. Art world influencers (critics, curators and museum directors) took note of Jordan’s bold and thoughtful work. One museum director was particularly impressed - Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem. The Studio Museum was founded in 1968 and has long been known as a key promoter of artists of African descent. Its residency program is now a launch-point for the careers of young visual artists of color. Jordan was offered a residency for the 2015-2016 cohort, which she gladly accepted. Jordan planted her roots in Harlem, a community rich with history and culture, and ripe with colorful, fascinating characters who became the subjects of many of Jordan’s works.
After her residency, Jordan gained representation by Casey Kaplan gallery and continued to build her artistic practice. In 2019, she was welcomed back to her home town with a solo exhibition at the Denver Art Museum called “Returning the Gaze”. In 2020, she had her biggest largest solo exhibition to date at the New Museum in New York City titled “Within Reach”. In May of 2021, her painting “God Bless the Child” was featured on the cover of Time’s BIPOC issue “Visions of Equity”. And in September of 2021, Jordan was announced as a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award, 1 of 25 fellows awarded the prestigious grant.
“I feel a great sense of responsibility because I’m dealing with imagery around people who really exist in this world. I make portraits. These are human beings who have lives and stories and nuance in and of themselves that deserve to be treated respectfully.”