“Jordan Casteel: Within Reach” at The New Museum, New York

Installation of “Jordan Casteel: Within Reach” at The New Museum; courtesy The New Museum
* * *

Strolling through “Jordan Casteel: Within Reach,” I was reminded of my time as a graduate student in the mid-1980s, a moment when Neo-Expressionism was just past its peak and the vacuum-sealed truisms of Post-Modernism were gaining a toehold in the collective consciousness. Among the controversies of the time was whether certain artists deserved their reputations, given their relative youth. David Salle and Julian Schnabel—there are others, but these two are lodged in memory—were fêted with museum exhibitions at the respective ages of thirty-five and thirty-six. Serious Artist–types harrumphed at the audacity. How could a Young Turk survive, let alone carry, a retrospective when history favors late bloomers? Titian, Matisse, Willem de Kooning, and Romare Bearden were settling into middle-age when they became the figures we now esteem. There have been Young Masters, of course: Raphael and Vermeer died before the age of forty, and their achievements were, to put it mildly, remarkable. Still, artists tend to gain in range and depth from prolonged experience with life. Posterity smiles, only occasionally, upon the whipper-snapper.

The Eighties were a signal time in the art world; strange, too. But the New York scene has become stranger still—political grand-standing coupled with a hyperbolic marketplace will do that to a subculture. Young artists are no longer frowned upon, and they are regularly (as a dealer of acquaintance put it) “cradle snatched” by curators, collectors, and critics. Are young folks more in tune with our kaleidoscopic world—as we are often led to believe—or are they more apt to latch onto it? The former connotes prescience; the latter, a chase after the bandwagon. Jordan Casteel is an interesting case in point. She has achieved astonishing success in a short span of time. Months after earning her MFA from Yale in 2014, Casteel had a solo exhibition in Manhattan, went on to a prestigious residency at The Studio Museum of Harlem, and was picked up by the art world macher Casey Kaplan. Jerry Saltz, the art critic for New York magazine, wrote that Casteel is “prepared to take a rightful place on the front lines of contemporary painting.” The New York Times? Casteel has received half a dozen notices—more recognition from our paper of record than most artists get in a lifetime. And since we’re keeping tabs: Casteel is thirty-one years old.

Jordan Casteel, The Baayfalls (2017), oil on canvas, 78 x 90″; courtesy The New Museum

* * *

Good for Casteel: we should all be showered with attention and plaudits. Whether they are earned is another matter. Voluminous press, enviable sales, and the profile that inevitably accompanies them aren’t necessarily indicators of aesthetic quality or staying power. Art ultimately thrives on its independence and integrity, on how adroitly its requisite properties are shaped and how they embody and shade qualities we intuit as human commonalities. How good are Casteel’s paintings? (An impolitic question given the hierarchy-free nostrums of contemporary culture.) Fans of the terminally avant-garde will be taken aback by Casteel’s conservatism. Unlike the usual fare at The New Museum, Casteel doesn’t partake in installations of bric-à-brac or heady nostrums given bare-bones packaging. No bells and whistles, thank you very much: oil on canvas will do. Portraiture is Casteel’s métier: the sitter is the locus of, and inspiration for, the artist’s vision. Upon entering “Within Reach,” one can’t help but take note of the intimacy informing Casteel’s art—something of a paradox given its larger-than-life scale. Empathy and warmth are rare commodities in art as in life. Casteel’s best portraits are suffused with both.

In the catalogue interview, Casteel tells Thelma Golden, the director and chief curator at the Studio Museum, that “being a black artist painting people of color is a nonnegotiable, unchangeable fact.” She goes on to wonder if “it is possible to be a person from a marginalized community and still make ‘art for art’s sake.’ ” Casteel goes some way in answering the question with The Baayfalls (2017), a portrait of a Harlem street vendor and her brother, a recent visitor—or émigré—from Senegal. (The painting was recreated as a large mural adjacent to New York’s High Line on Twenty-second Street.) It’s an unlikely and ambitious inventory of pictorial tacks: representation vies with abstraction; vibrant colors are lodged within encompassing fields of gray, black, and white; volume and mass—that is to say, dimension— coexist with attenuated-bordering-on-blasé linework. The woman pictured, Fallou, makes a devotional gesture derived from the Sufi Brotherhood, but it is the presence of her brother, Baaye Demba Sow, that cinches the painting. Casteel renders his skin with a steely range of blue-blacks and captures a temperament—a moment, really—that is simultaneously world-weary and august. Romare Bearden aimed to “paint the life of my people as I know it . . . as Bruegel painted the life of the Flemish people of his day.” Casteel has accomplished something like this with The Baayfalls.

Jordan Casteel, Serwaa and Amoakohene (2019), oil on canvas, 90 x 78″; courtesy The New Museum * * *

Casteel isn’t up to the Bearden standard— few of us are—and it’s worth mulling if there are better role models for figurative painters than Alice Neel. Casteel is on record extolling Neel’s “freshness and sense of perfection,” and the influence is there to see. Casteel’s art is mercifully free of Neel’s cruel bonhomie, and her serpentine paint-handling is more generous in spirit and momentum. Like Neel, however, Casteel doesn’t carry her pictorial machinations throughout the entirety of the paintings. The backdrops for her subjects are, well, backdrops. Oddly crumpled in character, Casteel’s compositions are patchwork affairs, and the flattened light that defines them betrays too strong a dependence on the photographs that serve as source material. Casteel is liveliest when pattern and color are given a measure of independence: the red-and-green garment glimpsed in Her Turn (2018), for example, or the choppy run of textiles seen in Noelle and Serwaa and Amoakohene (2019). Casteel might take a look at Edouard Vuillard and his melding of portraiture and pattern—or Gwen John, a painter who did away with backdrops altogether. It’s enough to make you think that a bit of art-for-art’s-sake might transform “unchangeable fact” into something richer, wilder, and true. “Within Reach,” indeed: let’s see where Casteel takes us.

© 2020 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the November 2020 edition of The New Criterion.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: