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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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.

90 Minutes at the MFA

“The important thing is first of all to have a real love of the visible world that lies outside ourselves as well as to know the deep secret of what goes on within ourselves. For the visible world in combination with our inner selves provides the realm where we may seek infinitely for the individuality of our own souls. In the best art this has always existed. It has been, strictly speaking, a search for something abstract.” – Max Beckmann (translated by Q. Beckmann and P.T. Rathbone) from Letter to a Woman Painter (1948)

I am not often caught without a notebook and pen. They are comparable to an appendage – naturally just there. This proximity enables frequent use. On my recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, I challenged myself to not pull out my notebook, to just look. I was unsuccessful – Renoir shattered what little determination I may have had to stick to the challenge. For me, apparently, looking – soul-seeking – necessitates writing.

One may not immediately think of energy when they think of museums. Perhaps they think of white walls and long hallways and people speaking in too-long words and too-quiet voices. But, without a doubt, museums are full of energy – charged with it. Visitors are constantly in it – perhaps little stray sparks are what draw us toward one piece or another. They send out little invitations: Here, they say, walk through this doorway. Pause. Turn, slowly. Survey. Find the one that catches your eye and let it pull you into its undeniable gravity – there’s no point in fighting, something will draw you in and you will obey, observe, enjoy. Take it in one piece at a time: after all, you can’t see the world in 90 minutes.

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dance at Bougival (1883)

Pause. You are struck by the light, the color, the movement. You are caught mid-twirl with the woman. You can imagine heavy skirts, taste the smoky setting. Trees bend in the wind – or maybe not the wind, but the breeze of the twisting dress fabric. There is music and conversation. The air is thick with excitement – a woman tips forward on her stool.

The man (looking suspiciously like van Gogh) cannot take his eyes off of the fresh-faced, coy girl. The pair is on their toes. Their mid-step is forever captured in oil. The maybe, want-to-be, almost-and-forever lovers hold each other close. It certainly isn’t the worst way to spend an eternity: safely suspended, together. The painting waits for people to sit on the nearby bench and watch. It, too, sends out an invitation: imagine the inhale that comes at the end of the twirl, imagine the smiling eyes beneath the brim of the man’s hat, imagine fingertips on fingertips.

Imagine: eventually, in a foggy someday, the woman’s stool settles safely back onto the dusty ground.

Scratch, scratch, pencil on paper, canvas to hand to sketchbook – carefully copied. The noise guides you through the massive galleries, drawing you from one space to the next – one painting and sculpture and subject and place and feeling and thought and not-quite-time-machine to another…

All the way to Pollock.

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Jackson Pollock, Number 10 (1949)

Here’s a challenge: trace it. Pick a drip, isolate it, follow it. Don’t get dizzy – don’t get too close. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Relax – it’s all in the flick of the wrist, flick of the paint can, flick of the eye following frantic motion frantically. Take a step back so you can see the whole image, all the way to the edges. Feel it out. Feel it. Can you decipher this drip-calligraphy? It is an unlimited, although not always easily-accessible, language. Try to learn it. Become bilingual – say you can speak energy disguised as paint on canvas.

Nearby, a few Picassos are mislabeled. There has to be some metaphor there, right? Something about the superiority of the image? Some condemnation of the crutch of a label?

Remember following that Pollock paint drip? Did it have a name? Did it need one to have a soul?

Voicemail

There is something about voicemail that is so collected.

The measured beeping-ringing of the phone stops, and out of the audio void comes a voice. Default and robotic, maybe. Impersonal. Predictable. Or a recording – the person you are trying to reach can’t get to the phone right now, they’re busy, they’re on vacation, they are in some way absent. But leave a message – a name, number, a stumbling one-sided sentence that is missing its counterpart.

Those recordings can trick you. The warm hello can feel bodily – a hand must be holding a device to a mouth which must be uttering a greeting to you now. Then a “Hi” in response is cut off by the recorded command for later communication. You fall into an unnecessarily embarrassed quiet on your end (now revealed to be the only end) of the line.

Or maybe you were hoping for voicemail. Hoping to avoid interactions separated by one degree of technology. Maybe all you wanted was that recorded hello. Warm – for everyone. But this time all for you. Maybe you’ll ignore the invitation for a left-behind word or two – a bit of news or an inquiry – and instead hang up at the end of the speech which acts as the gatekeeper to the inbox.

Regardless, people want a voice in response. We need it.

The Art of Communication

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“The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.” ~Ludwig Wittgenstein

Communication is like painting. Sometimes a person may come up with a masterpiece of an idea, and put it forth into the world clear and fully formed, saturated with color on a scale which others may digest comfortably. Other times a sentence may morph into a Pollock, becoming more and more layered until the starting point is all but unidentifiable. Yet other times there is a middle ground – a place of nuance. In those moments a person may have a thought to share, but release it in parts, or in phrases with subtlety. Some ideas come out clearly while others are fuzzy to the receiver. Here, communication becomes impressionistic: forming a whole a scene, a whole feeling, with well-placed brushstrokes and smart colors.

All of these ways of communicating are limited by what an artist can imagine, or what a speaker can name. Yes, we may be able to identify a feeling without being able to fully describe it, but because we lack the precision to completely talk about it, it is never fully comprehensible and communicable.

When I don’t know what something is, I default to calling it the infinitely descriptive “thingy.” This does nothing for someone to whom I am trying to communicate. We are all limited by what we can describe. As such, we are all limited by what we can control. So, really, I have no power over that “thingy”.

But what happens when that thingy which you have no name for suddenly becomes important?

Well, then there is no choice but to become a Degas or Kahlo or Pollock or Picasso or Monet and put some paint on a canvas – put some words into the Universe – and expand the limits of your language and thus the limits of your mind.

 

Image: Impression: Soleil Levant – Claude Monet, 1872  <https://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/monet/first/impression/impression.jpg