‘I Was Interested in Humanizing History’: Jordan Casteel Explains how Her Paintings Are Changing the Narrative About Black Men

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the Art21 "New York Close Up" film, "Jordan Casteel Paints Her Community." © Art21, Inc. 2017.

In the summer of 2013, when the not guilty verdict was announced in the closely watched trial of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the Denver-born artist Jordan Casteel was living in Gloucester, Massachusetts, on a grant to study landscape painting.

“I was probably the only brown person for miles,” Casteel told Art21 as part of its “New York Up Close” series. “There was a sense of isolation I was feeling.”

That isolation prompted Casteel to return to Yale, where she was earning her MFA in painting, and change course to focus on portraiture, “to create a sense of visibility around my family and my brothers that was feeling absent at that time,” she says.

From then on, Casteel dedicated her practice to depicting the black men she encountered in her Harlem neighborhood, where she moved after completing her degree—despite facing criticism for only painting men, especially after the momentum of the #MeToo movement.

Production still from the Art21 "New York Close Up" film, "Jordan Casteel Paints Her Community." © Art21, Inc. 2017.

Production still from the Art21 “New York Close Up” film, “Jordan Casteel Paints Her Community.” © Art21, Inc. 2017.

But the artist, who has a twin brother, wanted to empower black men, telling Art21: “I was really interested in humanizing a history that is often criticized and sexualized… I didn’t want the black male body to be taken advantage of any more than it historically has been.”

After a whirlwind series of successful gallery shows, Casteel is being feted in her hometown with her first major institutional show at the Denver Art Museum, where more than 30 paintings are on display through May 2019. The title of the exhibition, “Jordan Casteel: Returning the Gaze,” exemplifies the artist’s goal: to frame the faces of individuals who are too often marginalized.

Casteel knows that she can’t speak for the men she paints, acknowledging that her perspective is that of a sympathetic outsider. “As a result” she tells Art21, “this work really comes from my desire to share what I have known with the world.”

Watch the full segment, which originally appeared as part of the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” television series on PBS, below. “Jordan Casteel: Returning the Gaze” is on view at the Denver Art Museum through August 18, 2019. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of news-making artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship Art in the Twenty-First Century television series is available now on PBS. Watch full episodes and learn about the organization’s education programs at Art21.org.

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