Included in Jordan Casteel’s first institutional solo exhibition at the Denver Art Museum between 2019 and early 2020, the present work is a poignant tribute to the artist’s mother, Lauren Young Casteel. Painted in 2013, at the dawn of her practice, it demonstrates the rich, sensual painterly language for which she has achieved widespread critical recognition. With intuitive brushwork and deep, warm colours, Casteel captures a moment of peaceful solitude, registering the play of light and shadow across her face, clothes and hands. It is a rare example of a female portrait in her early practice; a testament, perhaps, to the inspiration her mother had on her outlook. As President and CEO of the Woman’s Foundation of Colorado, as well as a noted philanthropist and activist, Lauren Young Casteel became the first black woman in the state to head a foundation. She also hosted a variety of community TV shows, interviewing guests including Muhammad Ali and more recently, in 2017, Michelle Obama on the stage of the Pepsi Center for the Women's Foundation of Colorado's 30th anniversary. ‘She was the Oprah of Denver’, explains Casteel, ‘and a real model for me of how to use your voice actively in the world’ (J. Casteel, quoted in D. Kazanjian, ‘In Her First Solo Museum Show, Jordan Casteel’s Humanizing Portraits Get Even Closer’, Vogue, 15 January 2019). Indeed, her mother’s devotion to social justice resounds throughout her practice, which focuses on highlighting figures who might otherwise remain unseen. Offered on the brink of Casteel’s upcoming major solo exhibition at the New Museum, New York, the present work is a tender celebration of the woman who helped to shape her social and artistic values.
The roots of Casteel’s practice run deep within her maternal heritage. Her grandfather was civil rights hero Whitney Moore Young Jr., while her grandmother Margaret Buckner Young was a noted educator, author and activist. Casteel’s mother, however, encouraged her to find her own voice. ‘The thing that my mother always instilled in us coming of age was that it’s not necessarily about being the “granddaughter of” or the “daughter of”’’, recalls Casteel; ‘it’s about living the values through the work that you’re doing … Long before I became Jordan Casteel the painter, I was Jordan Casteel who understood the value of everyday stories and people and creating voices for people and room for people who might otherwise feel that there’s no room for them’ (J. Casteel, quoted at https://www.denver.org/blog/post/jordan-casteel/ [accessed 18 December 2019]). As a child, her creative instincts were nourished by her grandmother’s collection of works by artists such as Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden; later, she discovered Alice Neel, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Henri Matisse and Kerry James Marshall, whose influence is palpable in the present painting. Populated by friends, family and unassuming figures from her local neighbourhood, her practice seeks to capture the feeling of simply being in another’s company. ‘The magic rests in the moment’, she explains. ‘My intent is to highlight the magic of our existence as black bodies, and the physical spaces we occupy’ (J. Casteel, quoted in A-N. Wheeler, ‘Jordan Casteel's Harlem portraits shine a magical light on black experience’, i-D: The Radical Issue, No. 351, Spring 2018). Saturated with glowing familial warmth, the present work is an exquisite overture to a practice grounded firmly in this ambition.