Jordan Casteel Googled ‘Best MFA Program.’ Four Years Later, the Yale Grad Is a Rising Art Star
Recounting the steps that brought together an art career.
“My mother has always raised me to pay attention to the people who were behind the scenes because they are the people who make spaces function,” the artist Jordan Casteel told me recently.
This sensitivity to the social environment, plus a healthy dose of talent, grit, and dedication to craft, has already attracted serious attention for the 28 year old painter. Her large, colorful oil canvasses, often depicting black male figures—her friends, lovers, family members, or strangers she meets in the streets of Harlem—express a genuine tenderness. Right now, you can see her latest in “Nights in Harlem” at Casey Kaplan in New York.
Following undergrad and a brief stint working for Teach For America, Casteel’s next step was triggered by another bit of advice from her mother. “I think she literally asked me one day, ‘What are the best MFA programs?’,” Casteel explains. “I was like, ‘I don’t know anything about the art world and how it functions. And she said, ‘Well, let’s Google it.'” Casteel was eventually accepted to Yale.
Her time at Yale, she says, wasn’t the easiest. Moreover, she commuted once a week to New York to perform infusion treatments to treat her chronic lupus. At first, her art was inspired by her health, focusing on still-life paintings that we’re mostly biographical, rendering pill bottles and other personal affects. Now, her focus is more social, specifically on the African American male figure as subject.
This work won Casteel two well-reviewed shows at Sargent’s Daughters, in 2014 and 2015. The first (“Visible Men“) centered on somber, humanizing nudes; the second (“Brothers“) portrayed pairs of black male subjects, posed in various domestic interiors that subtly suggested their relationships.
The breakthrough that led to her current body of work, however, was getting into the Studio Museum Artist-in-Residency for the 2015-2016 season.
“Are you serious?” she remembers telling famed Studio Museum curator Thelma Golden over the phone, upon getting the news. “I literally said that. I was in such disbelief. I never thought I would get in. So when she called, I was just in complete disarray,” she recently told me.
Today Casteel lives in Harlem. Her paintings, including the work currently showing in “Nights in Harlem,” focuses on people from the neighborhood. Similar to way she made work for her Studio Museum residency, for her recent work, Casteel introduces herself to people who capture her attention on the street, asking to photograph them, then basing her painting on that portrait.
The results, as seen in the Casey Kaplan show, are very human. They cut against general stereotypes, and offer a touching picture of the world seen through Casteel’s sensitive eyes.
“Nights in Harlem” is on view at Casey Kaplan, New York September 7–October 28, 2017.
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