Museum  February 1, 2019  Megan D Robinson

“Returning the Gaze”: Portraiture that Encourages Empathy

Image courtesy the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York © Jordan Casteel

Jordan Casteel, Yvonne and James, 2017. Oil on canvas. The Joyner/GiuffridaCollection, San Francisco.

Acclaimed emerging contemporary artist Jordan Casteel has her first major museum exhibition at the Denver Art Museum (DAM), opening February 2. Jordan Casteel: Returning the Gaze showcases approximately thirty works by the Denver-born artist, now based in Harlem, New York. The exhibition contains work from 2014 to 2018, revealing Casteel’s artistic evolution and a shift from cityscapes and subway scenes to portraits, primarily of black men. Casteel seeks to make the unseen visible, to bring people who might be disregarded, ignored or stereotyped into sharp and tender focus. Painted with compassion and celebration, using vibrant colors and light that has an almost physical substance, Casteel combats common racial prejudices by humanizing her subjects.

© Jordan Casteel. Photograph by Tim Nighswander/IMAGING4ART, courtesy of Denver Art Museum

Jordan Casteel, Jiréh, 2014. Oil on canvas. Collection of Jody Robbins.

Her early series, Visible Man (2013-2014) and Brothers (2015) depicts family and close friends. “The intent of the paintings from my early works is to expose my vision of black men as a sister, daughter, friend and lover,” said Casteel. “That perspective is one full of empathy and love. I see the humanity and, in turn, I want audiences to engage with them as fathers, sons, brothers, cousins—as individuals with their own unique stories to share.” Casteel’s 2017 series, Nights in Harlem, portrays members of the Harlem community at night, from artistic street hawkers to Ethiopian matriarchs. 

Image courtesy of the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York © Jordan Casteel

Jordan Casteel, The Baayfalls, 2017. Oil on canvas. The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection, San Francisco.

“Casteel has the power to capture our attention by posing her sitters so that they often look you directly in the eye, leading to deeper understandings of the intent behind the artwork,” said Rebecca R. Hart, Vicki and Kent Logan Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the DAM. “By titling the exhibition Returning the Gaze, we acknowledge the levels of engagement within Casteel’s art: she gazes at the subjects, who often look out at the viewer with inviting eyes, which then prompts us to think about the sitter and consider the empathy that the artist has for the people that she paints.” 

Image courtesy of the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York © Jordan Casteel

Jordan Casteel, Twins, 2017. Oil on canvas. Rennie Collection, Vancouver.

Jordan Casteel: Returning the Gaze, debuts on Free First Saturday, February 2, 2019, so admission is free opening day. Thereafter, the exhibition is included in the price of general admission, and runs through August 18, 2019.

About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

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