Forget royalty, presidents, and celebrities. Artist Jordan Casteel’s paintings portray regular people. On walks near her home in Harlem, New York, the 29-year-old painter, named to Forbes’ 2019 “30 Under 30” art and style list, introduces herself to strangers, photographs them, and then re-creates the scenes in her studio. The large-scale results—which depict people of color emitting auras of resolute power—will be on display during the Denver Art Museum’s Jordan Casteel: Returning the Gaze (February 2 through August 18). Her first major solo museum exhibition, the show is a homecoming for Casteel, who was born and raised in Park Hill. Its title refers to her only request of her subjects: that they look straight at her, forcing engagement at a time when many avoid direct human contact in favor of their smartphone screens. We spoke with Casteel about her work, her process, and how growing up in Denver influenced her art.
5280: How did you find your way to painting?
Jordan Casteel: My mother would argue that my soul code has always been attuned to the arts. As a kid, I was always working with my hands: crafting, making Christmas gifts, baking, knitting. I switched my major [to studio art from sociology and anthropology] my junior year of college after studying abroad in Italy. I took my first oil painting class there, and I fell in love.
Why do you choose to capture normal, everyday moments?
My paintings help me engage more meaningfully with the people, places, and spaces I encounter. I have to literally look up from my phone or my feet and actually see the people who are surfacing in my day-to-day life.
What is it about a particular person that makes you stop and photograph them?
The things they’re wearing. The environment they’re in. Their general energy. When I saw Charles [featured in “Charles” below], he was sitting in front of these blue pieces of wood, wearing furs he’d made in Canada. He was selling them and had these mannequin heads with the hats on them. I thought, This man is meant to be a painting.
Do you consider your pieces “black art?”
Absolutely not. Historically, there hasn’t been a whole lot of room for African-American art in museums or galleries. But I identify as an artist. It’s supremely important to me that people not only speak about me as an African-American woman and my subjects as being African-American, but also recognize my technical ability and how this work functions in the historical canon at large.
How did your childhood in Denver impact your work?
As a student at the Logan School for Creative Learning, my peers and I volunteered at the Gathering Place [a daytime drop-in center for women, children, and transgender individuals]. I also worked in the food pantry. Those experiences helped me come outside of myself and engage with the world as a learner. I’m constantly curious, and I think that came from my time in Denver.
What does it mean to have your hometown host your first major museum exhibition?
It means everything. I have an opportunity to bring all my joys and failures back to my home. It means the people at the grocery store that I saw once a week my entire life get to come and participate in what I’m doing. I’m bringing paintings I’ve made here in New York but represent people in Denver that I know and love. “Marcus and Jace” will be in the exhibition. Marcus is my mom’s barber, and he drove me to prom in high school. My first-ever boyfriend in high school—there’s a painting of him and his dad that will be there. There’s also a painting of my mother. It’s like bringing together the scrapbook of my life.