On ViewNew Museum
In an essay that accompanied the hit Alice Neel retrospective at David Zwirner last year, curator Helen Molesworth argues for Neel’s enigmatic place in the history of art by asserting that the late artist’s “paintings are not in fact ‘nudes’ but rather images of people who are naked.” Molesworth’s point is to celebrate the intentional banality in Neel’s work: leave the erudite conventions of the fetishized nude to Renoir, and think of nakedness, in Neel, as a quotidian occurrence, sometimes erotic and sometimes not.
Molesworth’s thinking applies as well to the work of Harlem-based Jordan Casteel, whose first New York Museum show, Within Reach, is on view (but temporarily closed) now at the New Museum. Casteel is for the very large part a portraitist. Arguably, she does paint nudes: her first acclaimed works, part of a series called “Visible Man,” depict the naked, sprawled bodies of Black male students at Yale’s drama school (she was an MFA student there when she made them). But like Neel, Casteel’s forays into the unclothed are as much about personhood as they are about aesthetics. As she said of her portraits in a Fader interview in 2016, “I’m often thinking about the way that these will function outside of my studio, and how they’ll live a life on their own in spaces where I can’t necessarily speak for them.”
Most of Casteel’s recent subjects are dressed. She is in a phase of painting familiars—students she teaches at Rutgers, people she encounters in her neighborhood—in their indoor or outdoor environments. Consequently, she must engage in the semiotic game that portraiture has historically played: portraying her subjects not only as they are, or as she sees them, but also as they want to be seen. In a favorite of mine, Jenna (2019), a Black woman in jeans and pink Pumas is seated on a rock in a flower garden. In the background, apricot and cape tulips grow—species I know because Casteel makes their botanical tags visible. Nevertheless, the work is a meditation on dissonance: the culturally conditioned viewer wants Jenna to be typified, but nature is instead.
In the same way that Casteel’s nudes are really nakeds, her portraits of clothed people are in essence people in their clothes. If the works contain a commentary on representation, it is not in the vein of Las Meninas (1656)—whose art historical significance is tied to Velazquez’s willingness to destabilize the representational façade—or more contemporarily, of work like Kehinde Wiley’s Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps (2005), but of a deeper, essential, and more documentary humanity. Vagueness also abounds where it does not in Wiley’s portraits. In Cansuela (2019), a woman sits on her bed and brandishes a stuffed panda bear like a shield. In the style of Neel, Casteel leaves sections of the painting—Canseula’s bedding, the pictures on her wall—unfinished. Dimensionality is present: relativity puts people into focus.
Casteel’s work may be more in conversation with the history and politics of photographic portraiture than it is with painting. Notably, the monograph that accompanies Within Reach (2020) makes frequent textual and visual references to groundbreaking photographers—Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, James Van Der Zee, Dawoud Bey, Deanna Lawson—in addition to painters, Kerry James Marshall, Beauford Delaney, Faith Ringgold, and Neel. And in both praxis and theory, Casteel’s process is photographic; she begins her portraits with photoshoots, and then paints from the resulting images, consulting her subjects along the way.
Consequently, some argue that the presence of a camera degrades Casteel’s final work—the idea being that she should paint from life—but I disagree. The admission of technology’s impact on aesthetics is part of the post-analog project of which Casteel’s realist work is a part. Such is demonstrated beautifully by a portrait like Medinilla, Wanda, and Annelise (2019), which in its photographic version could easily have been the sitters’ Christmas card. That it is not, that it was labored over rather than mechanically reproduced, can be seen as an act of artistic protest.
Within Reach also presents some of Casteel’s non-portrait works. A window into the artist’s humanistic mind, the titular piece (2019) depicts an unscripted moment in which a young boy extends his body over the lap of a grown man whose hand is resting on the thigh of another. What is in reach, it seems, is not only care but also the unpromised prospect of a future. In Memorial (2017), Casteel presents the flipside of that prospect: on an urban block, a statuesque funeral arrangement leans against a telephone pole as a limousine and all other signs of life move out of the frame.