Jordan Casteel’s Portraits Are More Than Meet the Eye

Jordan Casteel’s exhibition “Within Reach” is presently hanging on the second ground of the quickly shuttered New Museum. The state of affairs is considerably paradoxical, on condition that the present’s most outstanding theme is closeness — one thing that’s been severely disrupted by the coronavirus disaster. Yet that additionally makes it time to take a look at Ms. Casteel’s work nonetheless we will — in a digital walk-through and in the catalog — and take into consideration the imaginative and prescient of neighborhood it gives.

This is the artist’s first solo museum present in New York and it consists of works from her famous sequence “Visible Man” (2013-14) and “Nights in Harlem” (2017). In massive, expressive portraits, Ms. Casteel celebrates the individuals round her, black and brown people who’ve traditionally been excluded from artwork establishments. Her topics current themselves to her, and to us, posing as they wish to be seen in a means that brings to thoughts Malians in the 1950s sitting for the photographer Seydou Keïta. They invite us into their worlds, offering the audience a privileged view.

The artist honed her approach while getting her M.F.A. at Yale in 2012–14. She enrolled months after George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American high school student, in Florida. He was acquitted of murder the following year after saying he acted in self-defense. The episode sparked a national conversation about a longstanding issue in American culture, and one that Ms. Casteel had already been thinking about: a lack of nuanced portrayals of black boys and men, who are haunted by stereotypes of them as menacing or carnal. She wanted to show their humanity.

“Nights in Harlem” includes some of Ms. Casteel’s best work. Her renderings are incisive but also empathetic and warm. Her compositions demonstrate how a neighborhood and its public spaces can serve as a kind of home. “Stanley” (2016), for instance, cozies up in a nook bounded on one side by what looks like a construction wall, while the three men in “Cowboy E, Sean Cross, and Og Jabar” (2017) command a flight of steps. (I love the way one man’s leg is cut off by the frame, as it might be in a snapshot.) Many subjects are not centered, as if to let their surroundings complete the picture, and in pieces like “Yvonne and James” (2017), the glow of electric light creates an almost beatific effect that amplifies the warmth the couple exudes. It’s not hard to understand why Ms. Casteel calls this “one of my favorite paintings of all time.”

Although her models remain still, Ms. Casteel’s paintings never feel static. In part that’s because she rarely renders a figure or an object in a single shade. Her brush strokes have become more fluid over the years, and her pictorial choices more confident, imbuing her latest portrait series, of her students at Rutgers University-Newark, with impressive kinetic energy. For example, the right foot of “Noelle” (2019) melds with the blankets it rests on and becomes an abstract wave of yellow and brown. In “Serwaa and Amoakohene” (2019), a young man and his mother sit proudly and comfortably with their arms resting on each other in a living room awash with color and pattern. You half expect them to spring to life and start talking.

Ms. Casteel is at a crucial moment when she needs to experiment and develop, not become boxed in. So it’s encouraging to see the inclusion of works from an ongoing series, begun in 2017, in which she paints scenes she’s observed on the subway. They’re not posed, and they often don’t show people’s faces, only gestures and quiet moments. The figures’ anonymity gives the scenes a heightened emotional power in our age of social distancing. Taken alongside Ms. Casteel’s portraits, they offer another way of arriving at what may be her true subject, and a message to carry with us until safer times: Getting close to other people — within reach, you might say — is a way of choosing to live in the world.

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