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Issue 224

Jordan Casteel Finds Beauty in the Fleeting Commonplace

In her inaugural show at Massimo De Carlo London, the artist and recent recipient of the MacArthur ‘Genius’ Fellowship renders today’s world with thoughtful tranquillity

BY Nimco Kulmiye Hussein in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 01 NOV 21

Jordan Casteel’s paintings articulate the beauty in the ordinary. Her inaugural show at Massimo De Carlo London excites with a confluence of intense colours and confident brushstrokes. Situated against a robust anti-racism discourse, ‘There Is a Season’ demonstrates Casteel’s politically tuned approach. Her nine paintings on canvas provide nuanced social contexts by deploying familiar signifiers and questioning what it means to witness private, commonplace moments. 

Casteel – known for her figurative portraits and still-life compositions – depicts scenes that radiate intimacy in chromatic assemblages that play gracefully with light. The artist is as much in conversation with art-historic traditions as with the contemporary world. Historical influences are rethought much as the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s countered the mainstream influences of the Western canon. Casteel identifies momentary milieus regarding race, class and gender that have historically gone unnoticed and, even, forgotten.

Jordan Casteel
Jordan Casteel, Direct Response, 2021, oil on canvas, 1.8 × 1.4 m. Courtesy: the artist and Massimo De Carlo; photograph: David Schulze 

The emotion of her figures is held in their gaze. In Noor and Adam (all works 2021), seated subjects grip each other’s hands and look towards us assertively. The green and yellow tones of a garden – a space that exudes quietness – envelope them. Likewise, in Andres, the subject rests comfortably on top of a glossy blue car fixing us with a stare. We can see the sign on a brick wall that reads (both in English and Spanish) in red capital letters: ‘Warning. You are under surveillance. Camera.’ To look and be looked at. Casteel’s work meticulously considers how we regard subjectivities and, by introducing personal encounters, she invites us to trace small details together with her.

The artist uses recognizable reference points to zone in on contemporary US life. In Harlem Public, she situates the text ‘#SayHerName’ next to flyers requesting the use of face masks, referencing both the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and the Black Lives Matter movement. Diverse public territories also appear throughout the exhibition. In Happy Meal, the ecstatic uses of savoury red and bright luminous lines of orange capture the lightness of movement in a child eating on the New York subway. In The New Black View (Still life with James and Yvonne), she positions at the forefront a copy of ‘New York Amsterdam News: The New Black View’– one of the oldest US Black newspapers still in print – its cover graced by former President Barack Obama. The newspaper highlights the histories and conversations of the local, national and international Black communities while, next to it, a small, framed photograph depicting two figures acknowledges the significance of our loved ones. 

Jordan Casteel
Jordan Casteel, Noor and Adam, 2021, oil on canvas, 2.3 × 2 m. Courtesy: the artist and Massimo De Carlo; photograph: David Schulze 

Casteel’s figures appear skilfully illuminated; the precise brushstrokes speak of the care she invests in the presentation of ordinary people in ordinary settings. Both Paisley, a seated guy in a puffer jacket looking at his phone, and Direct Response, a man dozing off on the subway in his orange protective coveralls, contain recurring themes in Casteel’s work: the lived US experience, the body of the painted subject and its agencies. Her layering of political articulations reflects the extraordinary ability of figurative painting to perform complex sensibilities. The conjunctures of historical and contemporary, mundane and exceptional, discursive and thematic represent today’s world with thoughtful tranquillity.

Jordan Casteel, ‘There is a Season’ runs at Massimo De Carlo, London, until 17 November 2021.

Main image: Jordan Casteel, Nasturtium, 2021, oil on canvas, 1.8 × 1.4 m. Courtesy: the artist and Massimo De Carlo; photograph: David Schulze 

Nimco Kulmiye Hussein is a writer and curator based in London, UK