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Making Black Men Visible—By Painting Them Together

Wild colors make Jordan Casteel's symbolic paintings pop off the canvas.

In her first solo show at Sargent’s Daughters Gallery, Visible Man, the artist Jordan Casteel portrayed the young black men she found in New Haven, Connecticut while she was getting her MFA at Yale. Wild colors make them pop off the canvas. Blue, green, and purple, they sit in places that bring them comfort, symbolising the general invisibility of their lived experiences.

“In my paintings of the black male nude, I was directly challenging the barrier clothing creates for black bodies,” explains Casteel to The Creators Project. “I have found that clothing on a black male body can, in fact, create a distraction for a viewer in that it comes with so many assumptions about race, class, and culture.” In a new collecction of paintings titled, Brothers, Casteel's captures several generations of clothed and related black males in settings like the barbershop, or in their living rooms.

Crockett Brothers

The new works include eight figurative paintings that she completed over the last year as an artist-in-residence at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Center’s “Process Space” residency on Governors Island. Casteel says as a woman, she employs an empathic gaze to call attention to the problematic nature of the way American culture stereotypes black men. “I am standing in solidarity with my community that has experienced immense loss and pain,”  she says.

“I also recognise that as a woman creating portraits of black men, I can do nothing more than share my point of view. The paintings are a translation of experience through my hand and eyes as a sister, daughter, and as friend,” adds Casteel. Her work continues in the tradition of artists like Kerry James Marshall, Barkley L. Hendricks, and Kehinde Wiley.

Ashamole Brothers

Where James Marshall and Wiley figures respond to the discriminatory nature of art history, Casteel's focus is on painting unarmed black boys and men like Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner. The national debate that their deaths sparked struck a chord with Casteel and gave her work a sense of urgency.

“For years I had been watching black men around me being portrayed as something different than what I knew and experienced,” explains Casteel. “The world saw those that I loved most—my brothers, my father, my friends, family, and lovers—as being less than what they are. As those around me were, literally and figuratively killed, the urgency to share my lens became more imperative.”

“In the painting Ashamole Brothers the clothing is purposely generic in comparison to everything else in the room. The basketball they share, the drawings in the background, and colors are much better references to who these men are,” she says. Her paintings urge a connection, vulnerability and intimacy with her subjects. 

Ron and Jordan

Jordan Casteel’s Brothers continues through November 15, at Sargent’s Daughters. For more information on the exhibition, click here. The painter is currently an artist-in-residence program at the Studio Museum in Harlem

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