Painted in 2013, Jiréh is an important painting by Jordan Casteel, the first of her large-scale portrayals of the Black male nude in which she employs a palette of rich high-keyed color to challenge our understanding of the nature of Blackness. The sitter is Mansa Ra, formally known as Jiréh Breon Holder, a playwright and theater director who subsequently became friends with the artist, and although it is his penetrating gaze that holds our attention, Casteel’s paintings are as much about challenging our assumptions of color, as they are about the personality of the individuals she portrays. Exhibited in retrospectives at the Denver Museum of Art and the New Museum in New York, Jiréh has been widely included in the literature about the artist, including in the recent Black Art: In the Absence of Light HBO documentary.
Consequently, Casteel has become one of the most distinguished painters of her generation, celebrated not only for her perceptive portraits of people too often ignored by the art historical canon, but also her ability to create fully rounded portraits of her sitters. Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem—where Casteel completed a residency in 2016—commented, “What we see when we look at one of Jordan’s portraits is her ability to represent her subjects in their fullness. She is able to capture a sense of spirit, a sense of self, a sense of soul” (T. Golden, quoted by Z. Lescaze, “Jordan Casteel Won’t Let You Look Away,” New York Times, February 14, 2020, via https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/14/arts/design/jordan-casteel-new-museum.html [accessed 2/23/2021])
In a sparsely furnished room, the figure of Jiréh sits naked on a sofa. Almost subsumed by the bold print of the fabric, he stares out at the viewer, engaging us with his gaze. Mirroring the pattern of the upholstery, the sitter’s skin is rendered in subtle shifts of luminous, almost iridescent, blues, greens, and whites, combined with soft pastel shades. In choosing to depict Black skin in this way, Casteel says she wants to engage with biases we all bring to the canvas and begin a debate about the true nature of color. “Blackness is really versatile,” she says, “it’s complicated, it is expansive, it is a mosaic, and it can be a multiplicity of things at any given time, and color is just a tool for me to explore that” (J. Casteel, interview with New Museum, New York, via https://www.newmuseum.org/exhibitions/view/jordan-casteel-within-reach [accessed 2/22/2021]). Next to the sofa is a low wooden table on which sits a plant. This motif was the first time that Casteel had used this particular device in her work, a twisting line that helps to draw the eye into the composition, across to the figure’s gaze, traversing the bold fabric of the sofa before leading you back out again, allowing—as Casteel describes it—the form of Jiréh to become a full figure.
This is the first in a series of portraits in which Casteel focused on the Black male nude, paintings that have subsequently become some of the most critically acclaimed of her oeuvre. A female artist painting the naked male body is still an unusual occurrence, even in the twenty-first century, and Casteel remains conscious of the different voice that she brings to her subversion of the usual narrative of the ‘male gaze.’ By activating her sitters gaze, she is challenging centuries of art historical tradition. “Their direct gaze is a critical part of the reciprocal relationship. I am trying to foster between the painting, the person represented, and the viewer… I spent the first few years of my practice focused on representing my relationship to black men as a black woman,” she continues. “Although women were not physically represented in those early works, my hand, labor, and engagement could not be ignored—although it often was. As my practice has grown and developed, I think a lot about how we prematurely gender people in an effort to make sense of our relationships to one another. What changes for the viewer if they know the subject or artist is a man or woman? It is our ability to see people as they are that I am most interested in as well as answering some of those questions in the least prescriptive way possible” (J. Casteel, quoted by C. Packard, “Reciprocating Gaze: Jordan Casteel Interviewed by Cassie Packard,” BOMB, April 29. 2020, via https://bombmagazine.org/articles/reciprocating-gaze-jordan-casteel-interviewed/ [accessed 2/22/2021]).
From the sitters point of view, this made them more protected from feeling exposed, both mentally and physically. Mansa Ra, the sitter in the present work, said it was an liberating experience. “Having us sit nude meant that we could be ourselves without having anything projected upon us. Jordan rendered us with such specificity. She really paid attention to the detail of our interior life as well as what we looked like. At the time, we really did not have many opportunities to be other than big black men” (J. B. Holder, quoted in Z. Lescaze, op. cit.).
Despite the dominant presence of the sitter, Jiréh like many of Casteel’s portraits is painted not from life, but from a photograph. “Early on in my practice, I recognized that there were going to be power dynamics at play that I needed to be cognizant of and work to dismantle,” Casteel has noted. “There have been many decisions I have made to work against those traditional structures of artist and sitter, but using photography as a tool to capture the moments I share with people was one of the first things I committed to. The camera allows me to be mobile, creating a fluid exchange between myself and the person I am engaging with” (J. Casteel, quoted by C. Packard, op.cit.).
Jiréh perfectly encapsulates the opulent and boldly visual language for which Casteel has received significant recognition. Her brushwork is both rich and intuitive, and the deep coloration of vibrant hues demonstrates her masterful use of both depth and dimension. She impressively captures the essence of the figure by placing him in a domestic and personal setting. With these male nudes, Casteel imperatively paints the subject’s gaze to meet her own to bring forward the emotional connection she felt when executing this work. This is the true exhilaration of this work, a rare display of painterly technique, combined with a unique understanding of the true nature of color.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).