From Neel to Casteel, a Visual Rhyme

Elizabeth Sweeney

Born in Denver five years after the painter Alice Neel’s death in 1984, Jordan Casteel follows Neel’s tradition of painting real people to show “what the world has done to them and their retaliation.” (Alice Neel)  Casteel’s solo exhibition, Returning the Gaze, opened on February 2, 2019 at the Denver Art Museum.  Rebecca Hart, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the DAM since 2015, amassed a selection of recent work and nudes shown at the Sargent’s Daughters Gallery in New York in 2014. Ms. Hart states that Casteel poses her sitters but Casteel works by taking hundreds of photos of her subjects before painting. Rebecca adds that Casteel’s paintings bring the “periphery into focus.”  Her “profound empathy” for Harlem business owners and subway riders and others initiates an intimate dialogue between the viewer and her subject.

Neel’s influence is evident in Casteel’s work as well as her keen awareness of the Netherlandish portrait painters. The rich details seen in Van Eyck and Rembrandt’s work echo in Casteel’s psychological studies of her subjects. The history of portrait painting according to Jordan Casteel is weighted by white men painting white men.  Casteel chose Charles – 2016 to keep for herself but she shares the 78” x 60” canvas in the Denver Art Museum exhibition. His kingly pose reflects Casteel’s manner of glorifying the unseen. She consistently leaves her distant observant self outside the studio and paints men as she understands them so her viewers can absorb ‘what the world has done’ to black men.

She elevated her subject Charles in a coat that is not unlike a king’s ermine cloak.  The velvet-like folds are sensuous. His hat reminds this viewer of the bonnet worn by Sir Thomas More.  Charles is royalty under Jordan Casteel’s brush although his throne is a discarded box. Her strong use of color and deliberate construction corners her subject.  The details beyond his unprotected gaze earn equal attention. The mannequin head under another noble hat, the newspaper vending box that is stuffed with trash and sealed with a sign ‘To me uno gratis.’ It is in her painterly instinct that she embraces the social realism endorsed by Neel years earlier.

In Devan – 2014, not featured in the DAM show, Casteel carefully renders a dog that is more expressionistic than the realistic nude. The viewer looks closely at the painting hanging behind the man to see another mark of social realism. The painting in the painting is signed, ‘Trayvon Martin.’  Does it matter to the viewer that the painting is of a sunflower dwarfed by an oversized beetle? Yes, it does. The construction of the 74” X 54” canvas is intentional from the subject’s bare feet to his boots set aside.  The lines of the lamp and the chair and the radiator and the floorboards point upwards to the man’s accusatory gaze.

Alice Neel’s subjects also from Spanish Harlem gaze outwards.  In Two Puerto Rican Boys from 1956 the faces of the boys suggest trust but maintain a guarded expression. They likely were neighbors of Neel. It is assumed that like Casteel she meant to represent the unseen. She walked the same streets and knew these boys would become men in a difficult world. Writer and curator Hilton Als wrote, “What fascinated her was the breadth of humanity that she encountered.” 

The difficulties of becoming a man in America have not dimmed. Black Lives Matter and so do the lives of Casteel’s barber in Harlem and the trio at Benyam,a restaurant where one can order Sambusa and Firfir.  Viewers can celebrate the humanity rendered by both artists and return the gaze of their subjects. Jordan Casteel, Returning the Gaze, Denver Art Museum, Denver, 2/2 – 5/26 2019.  Alice Neel, Alice Neel: Freedom, David Zwirner Gallery, New York 2/26 – 4/13 2019.