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.

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. 

Not-Glass

Once I broke a plate

and glass shattered everywhere.

And by that I mean

that it broke into two pieces –

one large, and one smaller

(a crescent moon and its other). But

 

tiny little particles,

atoms of not-glass that, when combined with other atoms of not-glass, make glass-glass,

took this chance to escape.

They shook themselves off of the

surprisingly clean

edges

and vibrated away into corners and up walls, bouncing against floorboards.

 

 

Once I broke a plate and it cried when it hit the floor.

And by that I mean

that it sounded like lightning posing as thunder,

sharp and loud and booming all at once

and then over.

 

Once

I broke a plate and caused a sand storm.

And by that

I mean that brown rice spilled across the floor,

grain by grain on the grain of the wood

in lost heaps.

 

When you’re little

and you brake a plate

someone comes and tells you to

Stand Still.

while they clean up all of the little landmines

waiting to go off in your foot.

When you grow up

and you brake a plate

(like I did)

you have to clean it up yourself,

so it’s nice when it only brakes into a moon and an other.

(In any case,

all of the not-glass is probably still around

somewhere.)

Candles

Some days fill me up.

All of the movements of the world – steps, brushes, touches, thoughts, words leaving lips, objects changing hands – heat up the energy all around. These particles, which have been waiting to ignite, burst into a buzzing existence.

I can feel it between the fabric of my clothes and my skin, between the space of breath and touch and breath. I can feel it charging me from the bottom up: in my steps, the swing of my hands, the slope of my smile, the way my eyes are so open.

I become full of all the people around me. Full of the things they give and the way they do so lovingly.

I am full. Of heat. Of motion. Of light – wick to soul.

I overflow.