Last week I went to see the opening preview of Jordan Casteel’s first solo exhibition in New York. Casteel is only 31, but she has 40 pieces in this exhibition, which display her ability to make strangers familiar. She paints portraits of people — on the street in New York City, in their bedroom with a stuffed panda, on the train of an ordinary day. What I find so remarkable about her is the way she makes people you’ve no doubt passed by a little more known. Sometimes, in rushing by life so quickly, we don’t stop to imagine what lives others are living. Her portraits give us that space, that time, to imagine. And, then, to empathise with, and see that which makes another person so wonderfully different and, at times, the same.
Born in Denver, Colorado, Casteel now lives in Harlem, where she is known for painting people who are part of her community. Just a few weeks ago, a portrait she painted of her mother sold for the highest any of her works has ever gone for — over $600,000, double what was expected. The New York Times wrote about how her work compels one not to look away, to look at what she has captured; how she has cemented her reputation to “represent her subjects in their fullness.”
The exhibition covers 3 groupings of her work – the Visible Man series, her delicate portraits of naked black men, Nights in Harlem, which contain some of the most vibrant street art I’ve seen (because of the vivid detail and the people she has chosen to shine her focus on) and the most recent paintings of some of her students at Rutgers University-Newark. Casteel paints people of colour and it’s the way in which she does so that makes her work so arresting — what does one shade lighter or darker mean in this world we have created? Why does it have to mean something at all, I naively left the museum thinking, when Casteel shows us the humanity so vibrant and alive within.