From her early series, Visible Man, a poignant response to societal prejudices to her recent portrait exhibition, Within Reach at the New Museum, New York, Jordan Casteel's representation of Black people is a powerful tool for social impact. This is due to her commitment to portraying Black subjectivity, the timeless intimacy crafted through her vibrant colours, and the diary-like documentation of her loved ones.

Photograph of Jordan Casteel in front of her painting by Tyler Mitchell. Image courtesy of Vogue Magazine.

In Casteel's vibrant canvases, the celebration of Black joy takes center stage. Her sitters weave a rich tapestry that humanizes Black people and portrays the diversity of the Black experience. Her canvases are a testament to the profound impact of creativity in celebrating Black joy all while also challenging stereotypes. They invite viewers into a realm that transcends societal narratives and fosters a richer understanding of the multifaceted experiences within the Black community, allowing viewers to see themselves within the Black subjects regardless of their race, reflecting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of Reduced Inequalities.

Jireh by Jordan Casteel. Image courtesy of Jordan Casteel’s website.

Visible Man was born in response to the media's lack of humane portrayals of Black men. In these portraits, Casteel captures the essence of her subjects – her brothers and peers at Yale University – with an intent to showcase them as individuals with depth and humanity. The large-scale and busy domestic settings create an intensity that goes beyond stereotypes, challenging prevailing narratives of Black men in America.

Her dedication to humanizing history, especially Black history, becomes evident in her focus on depicting the Black men of her Harlem neighbourhood. By providing visibility and depth to her subjects, Casteel challenges historical criticisms and sexualization, emphasizing her desire to share the lived experiences of her community.

Noelle by Jordan Casteel. Image courtesy of Elephant Art.

Within Reach, Casteel's exhibition at the New Museum, New York continues this exploration of Black subjectivity, transcending temporal dynamics to create newfound intimacy. Her use of vibrant colours elevates her subjects from restrictive categorizations, allowing them to exist in a timeless space. Through her paintings, like Noelle, Casteel captures the essence of her students at Rutgers University, showcasing cultural differences and personalities and fostering a sense of recognition that precedes institutional spaces.

Casteel's commitment to being a Black artist painting people of colour is unwavering. Her art goes beyond mere representation; it becomes a tool for social impact. The intimate portrayal of immigrants and people of colour in New York, whether friends, neighbours, or students, offers a fresh perspective that resonates with themes of race, class and belonging. Her paintings capture the cool and comfortable demeanour of her subjects, emphasizing their individuality and self-possession.

Amina by Jordan Casteel, part of the Nights in Harlem series. Courtesy of New Museum, New York Elephant Art.

Casteel's Nights in Harlem series, however, serves as a diary, documenting the bustling community around New York's 125th street which she frequents. In these works, she dives into the cultural nuances of Black life, portraying street vendors, siblings running a bar and diner, and other everyday scenes. By avoiding clichéd derogatory narratives of Harlem, Casteel empowers her subjects, depicting them as proud individuals with unique stories, challenging stereotypes and the complexities of Black masculinity.

As a young artist, Casteel has garnered significant attention and success. However, her art's impact goes beyond the hype of being listed as Apollo Art Magazine’s 40 Under 40. They engage with the complexities of the contemporary Black experience, and by focusing on portraiture and steering clear of avant-garde trends, Casteel brings intimacy and warmth to her paintings that are often rare in contemporary art. 

Jordan Casteel's artworks serve as a testament to the power of art in celebrating Black joy and challenging negative stereotypes. Through her intimate portraits and vibrant canvases, Casteel invites viewers to look beyond societal narratives, fostering a deeper understanding of the diverse and multifaceted experiences within the Black community.

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