Eye Contact and Empathy: Jordan Casteel at the Denver Art Museum

Jordan Casteel

Returning the Gaze

Denver Art Museum

February 2, 2019 – August 18, 2019

Curated by Rebecca R. Hart

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Installation View of “Returning the Gaze,” courtesy Casey Kaplan Gallery.

One normally expects to do the looking in a museum or gallery space, not to be the thing looked at. “Returning the Gaze,” first major museum show of painter Jordan Casteel, flips this idea on its head. Upon entering the exhibition space at the Denver Art Museum, visitors are first met with three sets of eyes. The faces within Benyam, 2018, look down: a woman in an apron sits on a barstool; two men – one fedora-wearing, one with a “QUEENS” baseball cap – lean over the counter. Behind them a simple shelf with some cups, and some paintings on the wall, set the scene as a little café. In this painting, and most of the others throughout the exhibition, Casteel has turned the subject into the viewer. However, this act of looking back is not aggressive, but rather open and inquisitive.

Casteel seems to challenge that long-held piece of parental advice to not talk to strangers. Not only can one imagine going up to any of these three figures at the counter in Benyam, but Casteel in fact talks to these once-strangers to paint their portraits. Though she grew up in Denver (making this debut particularly exciting to her childhood community), the artist is now based in New York City. For the paintings in “Returning the Gaze,” she walked around Harlem and looked for interesting people to talk to, to photograph, and then to paint. Casteel encourages this openness her viewers as well – the call to be “an empathetic observer” is the charge of the show as a whole (Casteel, wall text).

The Denver Art Museum has taken this encouragement of empathy and community to a literal level. At the entrance to the exhibition is a wall featuring hanging activity cards. One side of each card features a detail of one of the paintings in the show; the other has a command for how to engage with the space and/ or the work. These are such actions as “Be present and LISTEN,” and “Make eye contact with someone and SMILE” – written in both English and Spanish.

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Image courtesy of author

Combined, Benyam and the cards set the tone: this is no time to stand back and passively look at some “nice” paintings. And, indeed, on the day that this visitor attended, the space was alive. Never have I seen such a packed gallery at the DAM, nor with such a diverse audience – people of all races, ages, and abilities were present, looking back at the faces and relationships that gave them something with which to identify. 

After studying art history in college, Casteel decided that she wanted to create work that would feature people of color (especially black men) in order to reclaim and and humanize those historically objectified bodies. Using bold colors, soft blending, and organic lines – plus, of course, that powerful gaze – Casteel elegantly and effectively returns humanity to her subjects. In the February 2 “Teen Q+A with Jordan Casteel,” the artist said that making her subjects break the fourth wall and look directly out from the canvas allows them to “retain their power out in the world,” beyond the walls of the artist’s studio. 

The exhibition is divided into five parts: Brotherhood, Harlem, Community, Invisible/ Visible, and Subway Paintings. Brotherhood, the first section, focuses on portraits of Casteel’s family, including a beautiful painting of her mother (Mom, 2013) – the only one in the show where the subject’s eyes are both closed and turned away from the viewer. Harlem focuses on some of those community members that caught Casteel’s eye – a trio of stylish black men sitting on a stoop (Cowboy E, Sean Cross, and Og Jabar, 2017); a couple bundled up, holding hands and sitting by an elaborate fence in rendered in light-salmon hues (Yvonne and James, 2017). Community includes works that are focused on businesses in Harlem, like Casteel’s favorite restaurant, or a hair salon (Amina, 2017).I found Invisible/ Visible and Subway Paintings to be the crux of the show: they fit her community mission, and were the most visually powerful. In Invisible/ Visible, Casteel depicts nude black men – often friends and colleagues from her Yale years. In Ato, 2014, the title subject sits curled up in a chair, arms wrapped around his knees, pulled to his chest. Ato’s head tips to his left, resting on his knees. This almost-flirtatious pose somehow remains far from sexy – in his curled position, the man portrays a sense of childlike innocence. An orange curtain flutters behind him, his orange chair sags, his orange-undertoned skin radiates light. It is a magnetic painting that seems to capture a warm spirit rather than a seduction. Other men are portrayed in brighter colors. Jiréh (2014) is green. He sits on a tropically-patterned couch, arms hung casually over his knees, wrists crossed, long fingers dangling. He sits comfortably in his home – were it but for the nudity, a viewer might think she was sitting on an equally bright couch across from him, carrying on a conversation. In Isolde Brielmaier’s essay (“Hitting the Pavement: Jordan Casteel’s Street Portraits”) for the slim yet beautiful catalog that accompanies the show, she describes this quality as “a feeling of comfort and familiarity” – something that merges public and private in Casteel’s art (Brielmaier, 44). 

Jiréh had a special label for the exhibition. In it, Jiréh describes meeting Casteel at Yale, and says that “Jordan’s paintings ‘saw’ something in us [black men at Yale], and we were able to see something in each other that was and remains deeply meaningful.” Unfortunately, this was one of only three such subject labels in the exhibition. In a show that was curated so well – not crowding the works, flowing well from section to the next, clearly demarcated categories, concise labels – this lack of “story labels” was my biggest disappointment. Though the returned gaze of each subject was meaningful in itself, I believe that a few more opportunities to give those titular figures a voice would have made the show even stronger. 

The Subway Paintings were the brilliant conclusion of the exhibition. While to this point the work had been about making a connection through direct looking and looking-back, this final section of the exhibition shifted that: each of these smaller paintings was anonymous, faceless, and based on sly photographs that Casteel had taken on the subway. As a final moment of the show it was poetic: after all of the eye-contact and direct engagement, here was a moment to think about connection in a new way. In the background one could hear Casteel speaking about her practice from a video playing in the corner, but other than that, this area was much quieter than the rest of the exhibition. Many of the Subway Paintings are of hands: hands holding phones, shopping bags, draped over laps. Hands are, of course, just as unique as faces, though perhaps not so individually recognizable. What does it mean to gaze on an individual, these paintings seem to ask, when the receiver of the look has no idea, and when they are unable to look back? This is the conundrum of many historic portraits, and is the dynamic Casteel tackles head-on.

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Subway Paintings installation view at DAM, image from author.

This canon-busting question swam in my mind as I turned and took in one of the last paintings of the show. A shock of blue met my eye at first glance of Lean, 2018. Though not physically the largest painting in “Returning the Gaze,” this one felt monumental in a different way than many of the other works. In it, a boy clings to his father’s leg on the subway. Dad’s arm tucks the boy’s head against him. The child’s back reflects in the subway window, below which a sign reads “Do not lean on door.” Everything is blue and white and purple – save for the flash of an orange work glove in the man’s backpack pocket. Clearly demarcated areas of color in the two figures contrast the blended style of the subway door. The boy’s fingers curl around the man’s back pocket. The entirety of their bodies is not shown: the man is cut off from his shoulders up, both are cut from knees down. Looking at the intricacies of the painting, I could practically feel the denim against those tiny fingers, and imagine the rattle of the floor against my feet. There was something so visceral in the work – despite its facelessness. The anonymity seemed to make it universal: you, too, have leaned on someone. Lean shifts the kind of gaze of the first painting, Benyam; it reminded me of the show’s call for empathy, or of the card in my hand asking me to be present, or to say hello, or to slow down. Cumulatively, this end and its lack of eye contact reminded me of my own face among many, and asked me to look around, and forge my own Casteel-inspired connection. 

 

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Jordan Casteel. Lean. 2018. Image courtesy Casey Kaplan Gallery.

 

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Late Ramblings on Time

It has been three years of Beyond Art! My first post was published January 20, 2016. How far I’ve come since then…

And now: six months! Since my last post I have spent six months of time… On what? Finishing school; traveling. I’ve spent the time on seeing too much art to name (and writing about some of it other places). I’ve been to maybe 18 museums in that time…

After all that time away, I’m think about inertia. I’m not sure I’ve ever quite understood it like I do now, as I stare at the cursor flashing on my screen, leading letters along into words and sentences – into seconds becoming minutes. Into a post after a six month hiatus.

Over that time, I’ve been looking into this void. Maybe it’s something like the spin cycle on the washing machine, or watching fan blades spin, or the moment one’s eyes adjust the split-second when a room goes from light to dark. I know in that space, this strange cliff-side, there is so much potential – so much it looms like the monster under the bed: harmless, but intimidating nonetheless. It’s one big clock – big hand, little hand, second hand. One big hypnosis device.

The time-void. The clock. The Clock… I am sitting on the floor in the dark room. Bodies shift around me in the gallery-cum-movie theatre. The people are the sands in the hourglass, marking the passage of time that, even without the bodies, would be inescapable in this room. On the huge screen at the Tate Modern Christian Marclay’s immense, 24 hour long video plays. The Clock. Pulled from movies and beyond, the expertly-combined clips match the exact time in the “real world” outside of the video. I go in to the room at something like 5:15 pm. As I watch, the artwork reminds me that this little gallery-bubble is not so outside the world as it might feel: one clock shows 5:22, various scenes take place, then I am looking at 5:34. Time frames the actions that flash before me – people going in and out of buildings, children waiting for their father to come home. So much has happened in these 20 minutes in which I have sat on the hard floor in the darkness. So much has happened in these six neglected months.

Across town, earlier that day (Marclay’s video reading 11:30), 15 forty-something year old women gathered around a Rauschenberg at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac.  There, then, they follow the guide like hummingbirds to a feeder – sucking down his sweet nothingness. If they dare to lift their bright plumage, dare to speak, their voices are cut off by that man with the clipboard. Obviously that can’t be, he says, looking down his beak over theirs. Why do they stay here, wasting their ideas on this man who won’t listen? Why do they stay here, wasting their time with him, when it could just be the art?

Intermission at the January 17 performance of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Macbeth. Featuring a pocket-sized copy of the play, in front of a prop clock that ran the duration of the show, reading 01:10:43.

Intermission at the January 17 performance of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Macbeth. In the background is a clock that ran the duration of the show, here reading 01:10:43.

“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time…” (Shakespeare – Macbeth 5.5)

Macbeth comes tomorrow – the day after the Tate. The Scottish Play is all about time: when is the right time; what to do when time moves to fast; how to recover it when it is lost; how to beat it… The list goes on, reaching out for those very tomorrows, as if they could provide the answers. Those questions look to break Marclay’s time-frame, to make the video repeat over and over. A reset button at midnight. A clock chiming – calling Cinderella home. A cry to “sleep no more,” making one day bleed into the next. It is the seemingly-endless cycle of our world hurling through space. And among that rush all we feel is a little morning light on our eyelashes. Maybe the sound of a hummingbird’s buzzing wings.

In my neglected six months I have had so many adventures. Notebooks full of them – hard copy notebooks. Pages that will tear and fade and rip their bindings. My screen pages, resistant to dust, show no sign of their neglect. Time, even here, passes differently.

As I’ve been writing this, I’ve figured something out. My cursor, I think, flashes once per second when I’m not typing. My pen, when I pause, just waits, hovering like some fourth clock hand – some bigger time than seconds or minutes or hours.

Quick Take: Habibi at MoMA

On a warm summer evening in the middle of Manhattan, five women stepped up to the large patio of the Museum of Modern Art’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden. Habibi, the name of the Brooklyn-based band whose music Pichfork has called “charming and intriguing,” is an Arabic colloquial term for a loved one. Beneath the pastel evening sky, the performers were cool sisters to each other and the crowd. They wore white, accented with psychedelic colorful neon prints and began to casually jam away, comfortable in front of the audience. They looked ready for their late-’90s rooftop close up, à la Ten Things I Hate About You.

The gathered crowd of young hipsters and well-timed tourists crammed in – sitting, leaning, standing, vying for a good view, despite the fact that they could hear perfectly well, with the sound flying around the boxed-in space, bordered by fancy apartments, offices, and crystal clear windows giving peeks into the layers of galleries inside the museum. It was about the performance – the presence of the player.

Habibi

The poppy-rock music has a sitar-tinged vibe and hippie-era cool. The whole scene was full of alternative, dip-dyed glamour. It unfolded like a series of hipster polaroids, ready for the trendiest dorm room. It was a show of girl power beneath a thirty-six foot tall metallic rose by artist Isa Genzken. Under its magic, the beauties were unveiled as bass-thumping beasts, causing a mellow head-bobbing, hip-swaying trance to pass over the gathered listeners.

 

Find Habibi on Facebook, YouTube, and Bandcamp

MoMA Summer Thursdays run July 5 through August 30, 2018.

 

Bewilderment, Unprepared: “Born, Never Asked”

As you ascend the stairs of Metro Pictures, the tangerine walls reflect on the glossy white gallery floors and bounce into your eyes. At the top of the stairs, an odd image of a green hairy monster embracing (or restraining) and fingering an orange woman welcomes you to the exhibition. The image makes you do a double take – what is happening here? – and sets the tone for the show.

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In Thy Tender Care, 2015. Watercolor on paper mounted to dibond, 21 by 29 inches. Image: Metro Pictures, NYC.

Violence. At first there is whimsy – playful, cartoon-like watercolor and ink images in pastel tones; flowing lines that at a glance seem fitting of a children’s book.

Whimsy. On closer inspection the forms are grotesque and the cheerful lines are violent: hands and mouths on unsatisfied erections, distorted animals and women, twisted familial and romantic relationships, blood smear-splatters as in afterbirth or menstruation or pain.

The show is possessive, primal, impulsive. Romance is reduced to strange intimate encounters, portrayed as if in a dream (or perhaps a nightmare). The delicacy and almost-minimalism of the images remains figurative and graphically narrative, clear but confusing.

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Nothing to Wear to Work 2, 2015. Watercolor on paper mounted to dibond, 29 by 21 inches. Image: Metro Pictures, NYC.

The sex acts – entering and exiting of mingling forms – feel invasive rather than loving as heads are pushed to the side and limbs splay out, and yet there remains a careful curiosity within the images that intrigues and almost endears. Consent seems almost forgotten, and yet none of the molten figures appears to feel out of control – there is a balance in the lustful vulnerability. Born, Never Asked: is this about the result or the act of creation?

Turning from wall to wall, you are unsure how to feel, and you embrace the multiplicity and ambiguity – these orange womb-like walls have you tucked in, surrounded by images that are buoyant at first sight, but leave a heavy pull at the back of your mind as you turn to the next one. Color, line, and order – each of the systems by which humans organize and orient themselves – are all unsettled and re-mixed in an offbeat phantasmagoria.

You look down, and find that your hands have taken on an unfamiliar hue as the walls project themselves onto you.

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Born, Never Asked installation view, 2018. Image courtesy of Metro Pictures, New York.

Camille Henrot, Born, Never Asked, is at Metro Pictures ( 519 W. 24th St., NYC) through June 9, 2018

 

Arthur Jafa: Message Received

 

 

November 25, 2017 I saw Arthur Jafa’s Love is the Message, the Message Is Death (2016) at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC. At the time I was struck, wordless, unable to formulate a coherent thought about the video. Three weeks later I returned to the Hirshhorn and sat in the gallery for a long while, watching the seven minute video over and over. The gallery was a black cube – dark, with a few benches set back from the wall-sized screen.

The video was second-to-last in the Hirshhorn’s “The Message: New Media Works” exhibition, and when I eventually stood up and walked out I wished it were last. I wished there were a decompress room, a fainting couch, a net on which to fall and be caught for a moment – Kanye’s lyrics still echoing in my head, the tear-streaked face of a little black boy practicing putting his arms up for the cops burned onto my eyes like the sun flare image interspliced in the video.

But there was no pause except for a breath before the video started again.

Just like real life.

That day, when I had sat stationary and let the video play on loop before me, I found that even though it was the same artwork, I noticed different parts. It was like some clips had been taken out and others added – a trick of my mind as I noticed different things and tried to absorb as much of the content as I could. Before my eyes flashed images of love and dancing and pain and comedy and power and destruction and kids and icons… Joy and violence alternated, my processing was truncated.  I was breathless. I had chills. Time warped within the video, becoming syncopated with the rhythms of the song. Time warped between the videos, as other sound from the artworks before and after – separated by thin walls – bled into the room, seeping in under doorways like gas. Multiple voices rang out, then silence. Pause. Movement. A change of viewers around me – the group of men who had been standing in the corner left, the person who had been sitting next to me was replaced with another, a guard from the exhibition eagerly ushered in visitors and hurriedly told them about what he thought of the artwork. Play.

Jafa has been in the news a lot recently, from exhibition reviews to articles about his work and background to interviews in sources like artnews and Frieze (that one was my favorite). Each time one of these popped up over the months following my experience at the Hirshhorn I would sit down and think about writing something about the object, about Jafa, about anything even tangentially related to this gorgeous artwork. Every time I felt like my computer was staring at me rather than the other way around. The memory of the object would play in my mind, still catching me off guard and unprepared to say something. I looked and looked for the video online or in museum collections, but it doesn’t currently exist in the public domain; for now only shooting around the gallery and museum circuit like some kind of anti-morphine: amplifying, challenging, making you feel everything harder. Yet somehow still comforting.

Now, listening to “Ultralight Beam” on repeat as I write, I’m still not really sure what I have to say. With this piece, I don’t know if I’ll ever be. This one might be more about the feeling – the goose bumps racing up arms and down legs; the flash of images threatening to drive you into overload as they flash in a dark room; Kanye’s rich voice unsettling you like seasickness or love; other bodies scattered in the gallery, faceless but full to the brim with humanity, engaged with seven minutes of knife-sharp clarity.

 

The Message: New Media Works is on view at the Hirshhorn in Washington DC through September 30, 2018

Arthur Jafa: Love is the Message, the Message Is Death runs June 27 – September 30, 2018 at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston

A review of the Jafa artwork (and more) on view at the MCA Denver through May 13.

Wood, Metal, Paper: Danh Vo at the Guggenheim

In an exhibition whose title highlights breath, I found myself drawn to the concept of touch. Not simply touch as a sense, but as a concept, because of the implications of such a thing: the pressure of stone on wood, the force of a pen tip scarring paper, the impact one life has on another.

Danh Vo (born in Vietnam and now working between Berlin and Mexico City) appropriates, alters, and re-purposes found materials and objects to create new meaning, often merging the personal and the political with a deft hand. His artwork, while on the surface sparse and approachable, sits with you the more you sit with it.

With a light touch, a case containing a watch, lighter, and ring becomes a meditation on perceived masculinity, ownership, and inheritance. These objects – once belonging to Vo’s father – are at once minuscule and monolithic. Touch: a metal clock against soft skin.

The Unabomber’s typewriter is dethroned, sitting innocently on the floor, small and unassuming – non-mythical without a label shoving away the subtlety. Fingerprints on letter keys, one tapping against the other.

Further along, Beauty Queen is unassuming on the floor – a 400 year old wooden torso of crucified Jesus, separated from the rest of the body, placed in a box to the perfect fit. Above, dismembered pieces of a copy Statue of Liberty (We The People) strewn across the floor – a thumb as big as a child; the curve of a wrist large enough that I could tuck myself into it; a sheen on the horizon becoming a shine against the white of a gallery floor. People step among the story of Vo’s connection to immigration, and the repeating motif of “an iconoclastic approach” (as described in one of the exhibition’s labels); these ideas are simultaneously evident and nuanced – like the light reflecting off of the installation.

Vo’s work is dense, but it never feels too heavy.

In an exhibition filled with mighty materials, stone, wood, and metal aged to earthy musty richness and worn nostalgic metallics, I was most drawn to the delicacy and intimacy of paper.

2.2.1861 – one in an ongoing series of letters – is understated among the range of materials and physical dimensionality of the other works in the exhibition. Where other objects are gold and brown and slick and woody, this one is smooth and quiet. Phung Vo, Danh Vo’s father, has copied this letter numerous times over the past nine years. Each time, it is the same – a correspondence from Théophane Vénard to his father before his decapitation in 1861; each time it is different, featuring nuances of the hand at work – a letter with a slightly steeper slant, a bolder dot where pen first met paper before skimming off into a looping letter turning word. The letter is in French – a language that Phung does not know – and he copies it in a beautiful, swooping calligraphic script that he has mastered. He can touch and sculpt the words, but cannot feel the language. The letter echoes – father to son/ father to son, copy/ copy/ copy/ copy, ink flowing from pen tip, border crossings between writer and artist and receiver.

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2.2.1861 (2009- ongoing)

When I returned home from the exhibition, I wrote a postcard to my family, not thinking about my purple marker or the crispness of my penmanship – and not writing about an impending decapitation. As I wrote, my pen made little scratching noises against the fiber of the paper, pressing ink and color against the substrate.

To emboss is to stamp or carve onto a surface so that the pressed portions become raised. If you look at it that way, while of course the letter coincides with Vo’s conceptual oeuvre, it also feels like a tactile companion to the other works. If you were to draw that link in the air between each artwork, what would it feel like to touch?

 

Danh Vo: Take My Breath Away is on view at the Guggenheim in New York City through May 9, 2018. 

 

Cleaning Lesson II

Participants' shoes outside Sacerdote Gallery at SCMA

You step into the gallery, shoeless but not barefoot. Your socked feet slide and pad across the wooden floor. There is movement, but a semicircle is slowly forming, settling the gathered crowd. In front of you a woman in red and blue looks around the exhibition. No one gets closer – people go about their not-quite-bare-footed business, with an invisible line. Border.

The crowd is gathered. Quietly, feet move and tip-toe and push into place, they lift a body up for viewing.

Below: a rustle of fabric against skin against floor against fabric again passes across the gallery. She is wearing so many skirts, layered over her like smooth armor.

A Korean mother, UMMA, cleans the floor, occasionally saying something in Korean that hardly anyone understands. Her white rags sweep back and forth and back and forth and back and forth… She cleans for peace. For hope. For unification. For luck. For this museum and for the college.

UMMA cleaning

She step-slides across the floor. Slowly she hunches more and more over. Breathless. With each motion and moment her white towel (like your white socks) dirties, each little violent sweep gathering and moving the gallery grime. More words in Korean. Unknown. Border.

There she is, the good Korean mother, UMMA, on her knees. Take your shoes off when you come in, when you come home, when it is time for a change. Respect. You watch this woman bend and work before you, offering no help, barely making a noise except your toes screaming to push you higher so you can have a better view of the spectacle.

She pulls herself up. She bows. Her border speech is musical and rhythmic and meaningless to you.

Behind her, she leaves a small pile of dirt and dust, two once-white towels, and a unification flag.

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Cleaning Lesson II was a performance by Korean-American artist Mina Cheon as her persona UMMA (“Mommy” in Korean). Cheon is a performance, new media, painting, and sculpture artist who divides her time between Korea and the United States. This event took place on Friday, March 2, 2018 at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, MA as part of the special exhibition 体  Modern Images of the Body from East Asia, on view through August 26, 2018.