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Jordan Casteel Paints Her Community

Video by Art21

Where does a painter find her subject matter?

With a process that takes her from the streets of Harlem to her studio in DUMBO, Brooklyn, artist Jordan Casteel paints vibrant large scale portraits, making visible the often unrepresented humanity of Black men. At first struggling to find subject matter that could speak to the political realities of police violence and implicit bias, Casteel drew inspiration from her twin brother. "People follow me like I’m a threat," the artist remembers her brother saying, "but they don’t know anything about me."

Together Casteel's paintings illustrate the multiplicity of Black male experience; she began with nudes in domestic interiors before expanding to men on the sidewalk, the color and compositions celebrating the visual texture of her Harlem neighborhood. Casteel's work is probing in its tender depiction of Black men who, although often strangers to the artist, gaze directly and intimately out at the viewer.

The film follows Casteel as she travels from a brunch at her aunt's Harlem home to a studio visit with university students, to an informal hangout with friends and finally back to the streets of Harlem, mirroring the artist’s own navigation of New York's diverse racial and cultural spaces. Recognizing her complex position as a Black woman painting the bodies of Black men, Casteel nevertheless feels present in the work.

"I get really conscious [of the fact that] his story is not mine to tell," says the artist of her brother. "[I've] seen him as this really funny, sensitive, charismatic, loving young man...And as a result, this work really comes from my desire to share what I have known with the world."

Featuring footage from the Studio Museum in Harlem’s exhibition "Regarding the Figure," and the Sharpe-Walentas studio residency in DUMBO.

Jordan Casteel (b. in 1989, Denver, Colorado) lives and works in New York. Learn more about the artist at: https://art21.org/artist/jordan-casteel/

CREDITS | "New York Close Up" Series Producer: Nick Ravich. Director: Orian Barki. Editor & Cinematography: Orian Barki. Additional Camera: Sam Balaban & Tom Kneller. Sound: Taeer Maymon. Design & Graphics: Open. Artwork Courtesy: Jordan Casteel. Music: UNRTHDX. Thanks: Lynda Blackmon Lowery, Marcia Cantarella, Phoebe Collings-James, Naima Green, Casey Kaplan, Chalia La Tour, Wayde McIntosh, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program, The Studio Museum of Harlem, Korde Tuttle, Didier William. © Art21, Inc. 2017. All Rights Reserved. "New York Close Up" is supported, in part, by The Lambent Foundation; public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council; VIA Art Fund; Lévy Gorvy; and by individual contributors. 
Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

[New York Close Up] ["Jordan Casteel Paints Her Community"] [JORDAN CASTEEL] Hi there. Do you remember me? Do you know where Harold is? Have you seen… Harold? Do you remember that I painted him? I wanted to show him the painting. I gave him my stuff so he could get in contact with me, but I haven't seen him back out here. [MAN] I haven’t seen him in a while. [CASTEEL] Okay, if I ever saw him then... [MAN] I haven’t seen him in about a year. [CASTEEL] I can email or text it to him. This is like seven foot tall, too. It's big. Get kind of close to your dad. Get like right here. Because this is your dad? Or that’s your dad? Yeah! I love it. Now I see it. That's so good. [MAN] Thank you. [CASTEEL] Yeah, come right here. I want you close to this middle one. [CAMERA SHUTTER CLICKS] Will you put this leg in a little bit? Yeah! I’m just thinking about my canvas. Yeah, that's perfect. [MAN] Thank you. [CASTEEL] Look. [MAN] Oh yeah, that’s lovely. [CASTEEL] The summer between my first and second year at Yale, I was awarded a grant to get ten thousand dollars and to go to Gloucester, Massachusetts to do landscape painting. During that time, there was the acquittal of the murderer of Trayvon Martin. Gloucester is a very white place, as in I was probably the only brown person for miles. So like, there was a sense of isolation that I was sort of feeling around that experience. [Home of Jordan’s Aunt] I remember having a phone conversation with my twin brother. My twin was describing being in a convenience store and somebody was following him, and he was kind of going on this rant, like, "You know, people follow me like I'm a threat," "but they don’t even know that I'm a father" "and I'm, like, trying to get my shit together." "They don't know anything about me," "I'm just the one who's, like," "going to steal something or whatever." I think I felt at that time that I needed to go back to Yale and do work outside of landscapes-- that I needed to find a way to combine my desire to create a sense of visibility around my family and my brothers that was feeling absent at that time. Let me help you with your ringtone. Record it? [AUNT] We have to record it. Go in the settings and see how you do that. [SINGING] ♪ Trump is our enemy. ♪ ♪ He must be removed ♪ ♪ Trump is our enemy. ♪ ♪ He must be removed. ♪ ♪ Just like a can of garbage in the alley, ♪ ♪ he must be removed. ♪ Yeah! [CASTEEL] Okay now we got to test it out, But I think I did it! Okay. [AUNT] Okay, and then you call me, and let's see if this works. [FROM RECORDING] ♪ He must be removed. ♪ [LAUGHS] [CASTEEL] Everytime the phone rings, that's now what it is! So I came back to Yale and was like, "I am going to paint my black men" "Imma do this thing about my family, basically." Nine times out of ten, people think that I am a man before they meet me. Even though, like… Yeah, because my name is Jordan and I'm painting men. So even at my own openings, the number of times that my mother… I hear my mother across a room being like, "SHE's over there!" And I'm like, "Mom, it's okay." And I think 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. I feel really present in this work as a result. Like, whenever people… There have been some criticisms of: 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’m very much a part of this work, and it's translated through my experience. So, these nudes happened, which was horrifying. And I got a lot of criticism, sort of, during that time around it. Because I was making some pretty intentional and dramatic moves, such as not showing the genitalia, which was always a thing. But I was really interested in humanizing in a history that is often criminalized and sexualized. So, I didn’t want the black male body to be taken advantage of any more than historically it has been. So that was like a gesture of not allowing people to have what they felt like they deserved from the body. [STUDENT] To consume the body... [CASTEEL] Yeah, exactly. Yeah, of course. Thank you, guys! Best of luck to you as well. [SOUNDS OF DJEMBE DRUMMING] There was some conversation about my paintings being surrogates for my brother. And it was when that conversation came up that I first was like, "Oh, you’re maybe right." "Like, maybe I need to go to the source of all of this." "Maybe it's time for me to actually paint my twin." [RECORDING] One, two, three… [MUSIC BEGINS PLAYING] [MAN, OFF SCREEN] Turn up! [LAUGHTER] [CASTEEL] I never heard this song. [WOMAN, OFF SCREEN] What!? [WOMAN] Oh, we do know this! [MAN] The fact that y'all all dancing to this song, like it's, like… I've never heard this song in my life. [ALL LAUGH] [MAN]: Let’s get the hottest rappers around right now. Lil Yachty! [ALL LAUGH] [WOMAN] Lil Yachty! Oh my God! [MAN] See? [MAN] I feel like I’m doing like a… [WOMAN] Like a belly dance, yes! [WOMAN] You have such an emotional connection... Like, the moments when you decide to photograph. Like, with the twins, like, all of a sudden, they're lifted in a way that's like… I don’t know how to… [CASTEEL] Well that wasn't an intentional photograph. Like, I was photographing Charles, the fur guy. And this woman pushed her babies in front of my camera and was like, "Photograph my babies!" [ALL LAUGH] [CASTEEL] No, literally. And I was like, what? Okay? And I took one shot. Like it was literally, like, click. And I was like, "Oh they're so cute, are they twins?" And she was like "Yeah they are," and then just like ran off. [MAN] Wow… [WOMAN] Did you tell her you're a twin? [CASTEEL] Yeah, I was like "Oh, I'm a twin too," "So maybe I, like, noticed that or something." And she was like, “Oh, okay that makes sense," And then she kind of, like, ran off. [MAN] And have you found her since then? [CASTEEL] No! No. I have no idea. When we were really young, we were really, really close. And then we went to high school, and we were both... We went from this all white, private middle school from first to eighth grade, where we were the only two black kids, basically, in the whole school. And we transferred in high school to our local public high school. And both of us experienced some bullying, I think, because we were coming from a different background than a lot of the other students. [MAN] It’s like I'm, like, setting it down though. [CASTEEL] Yeah! Yeah. Well, here, maybe sit in front of it, then I can do a close up of y'all sitting in front of it. Would that be cool? [CAMERA SHUTTER CLICKS] The way that I dealt with that was I made cookie cutter peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and I would sit outside of my favorite teacher's classroom-- on the floor, during lunch-- and eat my cookie cutter sandwiches. But my twin, on the other hand, was bullied more physically. I think he literally had to, like, become tougher. And a lot of that had to do with societal expectations. I only feel like… I just, in at least a public sense, I get really conscious… His story is not mine to tell. And I can only speak from the perspective of his sister. And somebody who's seen him as this really funny sensitive, charismatic, loving young man, and recognizing that the world perceives him differently. And as a result, this work, I think, really comes from my desire to share what I have known with the world.