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Recognized for Her Portraits of Black Men, Jordan Casteel ‘Paints Her Community’

AFTER DEVOTING A SUMMER in Gloucester, Mass., to landscape painting, Jordan Casteel decided to start making portraits of black men. The man who killed Trayvon Martin was acquitted in those months between her first and second year at Yale University where she earned her MFA. The experiences of her twin brother were unsettling, too. A young father, he told her he was tired of being followed in stores, treated like a threat who was going to steal something. “Gloucester is a very white place, as in I was probably the only brown person for miles. So there was an isolation I was feeling around that experience,” Casteel says in a new ART21 film. “I needed to find a way to combine my desire to create a sense of visibility around my family and my brother that was feeling absent at that time.” Debuting today, the film is part of series of artist profiles ART21 is releasing in the coming weeks. “Summer of Shorts” (June 2-Aug. 9) features 10 films in 10 weeks—a new film every Friday. Last friday, ART21 released a film about Theaster Gates. Canadian artist Stan Douglas will be featured July 7. The Casteel film is part of New York Close Up, a refreshed version of longest-running digital series produced by ART21.

WHEN SHE RETURNED TO YALE, Casteel began developing a body of work in which a panoply of black men is incredibly present. Her subjects span relatives, friends, and fixtures on the streets of Harlem. Depicting the black male figure and the complexity of black male identity, the paintings explore masculinity, spirit, and humanity. She wants the men to be seen and for the images to convey truth. An assistant professor at Rutgers University-Newark, Casteel was an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem (2015-16). Prior to her residency, she focused on capturing men in interior environments. Once in Harlem, she found the streets added a layer of character, and painted expressive portraits of men around the neighborhood—a glass vendor named Michael, Kevin the kite man, Charles who sells fur hats, and Jared, a young man on a skateboard. Her solo exhibition “Jordan Casteel: Harlem Notes” presents her Harlem portraits and is on view at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture in Charlotte, N.C., through July 8. In “Jordan Casteel Paints Her Community,” ART21 captures the artist in her studio, relaxing with family and friends, and hitting the streets that have inspired her recent paintings. She talks about her work in the accessible manner of a compassionate sibling with the intellectual heft of an artist who is as comfortable in front a canvas as she is a classroom of university students. When people view her work, Casteel says many assume she is a man because of her name and the subject matter. “A lot of that has to do with historical painting and the notion of who has the right to depict what bodies at what scale and I like that,” Casteel says. “I feel really present in this work, as a result. There has been some criticism that I only paint men and every time people say women are absent or people are like when are you going to paint women, I’m like I don’t know if I feel absence. Because I am very much a part of this work and it is translated through my experience. CT

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