‘My interest as a painter to represent black men also comes from my own personal engagement with my family – it was shortly after Trayvon Martin was killed, and I was on the phone with my twin brother, and I couldn’t help but think that Trayvon could have easily been my twin. I felt deeply in that moment that the work I needed to create had to show those men that I love deeply as I see them: as valuable’
Stretching nearly two metres in height, Patrick and Omari is an intricately-rendered double portrait from Jordan Casteel’s celebrated figurative practice. With deft precision and luminous clarity, the artist lavishes attention upon her dual subjects, capturing the folds of their clothes, the shadows upon their faces and limbs, and the intensity of their gaze. Fringed fencing and a potted plant infuse the scene with domestic warmth, whilst the vivid colouration of their skin – bordering on shades of purple – lends the figures a near-translucent glow. Painted in 2015, the year that Casteel completed a residency at the Studio Museum, Harlem, the work takes its place within her distinctive portraits of black men. Closely related to the series ‘Brothers’, completed that year, the present work demonstrates the increased ambition of her practice, which by this stage had begun to focus on pairs and groups of figures. Frequently altering the colour of their skin to vibrant hyper-real shades – including green, pink and orange – Casteel seeks to depoliticise her male subjects, instead celebrating their individual characteristics. Fascinated by representations of black identity, she was deeply affected by the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012. ‘I was on the phone with my twin brother, and I couldn’t help but think that Trayvon could have easily been my twin’, she recalls. ‘I felt deeply in that moment that the work I needed to create had to show those men that I love deeply as I see them: as valuable’ (J. Casteel, quoted in A. Biswas, ‘Jordan Casteel: “My perspective is one full of empathy and love”’, Studio International, 21 October 2015). Casteel has risen to critical acclaim over the past five years: her first solo museum exhibition is currently on view at the Denver Art Museum, Colorado.
Casteel draws inspiration from a variety of visual sources. ‘As a child, I grew up with knowledge of Hale Woodruff, Romare Bearden, William H Johnson, Jacob Lawrence and Faith Ringgold’, she explains. ‘It wasn’t until much later in life that people such as Matisse and Alice Neel entered my spectrum of knowledge. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is another painter whose work I greatly admire for her lovely attention to paint, and sensitivity to black bodies’ (J. Casteel, quoted in A. Biswas, ‘Jordan Casteel: “My perspective is one full of empathy and love”’, Studio International, 21 October 2015). Typically set in home environments, her portraits depict friends and family, as well as men she encounters on the streets of her local neighbourhood. Casteel photographs her subjects in detail – often amassing up to 200 images – before returning to the studio to sketch out the composition, frequently merging together elements from multiple shots. ‘I consider myself a painter in the most technical way’, she explains. ‘I spend probably the majority of my time thinking about the nuance of colour and composition … I like to think of [the figures] as being able to wobble in and out of these flat and hyperrealistic spaces’ (J. Casteel, quoted in J. Felsenthal, ‘Jordan Casteel Is Making You Look’, Vogue, 27 February 2018). The present work is a glowing testament to her technical prowess: the figures appear suspended within a near-abstract mesh of lines, leaning forwards as if captured mid- conversation. In her lovingly observed, deeply human portrayals, the hierarchy of the male gaze is subtly inverted.