Painting Empathy: Jordan Casteel’s “Returning the Gaze” Exhibition

Painting Empathy: Jordan Casteel’s “Returning the Gaze” Exhibition

The Denver Art Museum welcomes home an acclaimed local artist striving for social justice causes, and diversity in portraiture. Returning the Gaze is Jordan Casteel’s first major museum exhibition; it includes 30 paintings ranging from 2014 – 2018. Through these larger-than-life artworks, the artist portrays people in her community and unsung heroes of color. The intense use of line and hue juxtaposed against intimate or revealing settings encourage the viewer to gaze back at the person and empathize with Casteel’s portraits.


Jordan Casteel, Charles, 2016. Photograph courtesy of writer.


Jordan Casteel (b.1989) grew up in Denver Colorado. In 2011, she moved to Decatur, GA to study Studio Art at Agnes Scott College. The artist then went on to secure an MFA in Painting and Printmaking from Yale School of Art, New Haven, CT. Casteel, who currently lives and works out of New York, NY, looked to her close family members and friends as the first subjects of her paintings. When asked why she began to focus on black men in her body of work, she replied, “I felt the world didn’t see and know them as I see and know them: as my brothers, as my father, as friends, as lovers.” Casteel aims to translate and share this level of intimacy through her paintings.

While Casteel worked towards resolving social justice issues and teaching, she realized she wanted to focus more on painting; she moved to New York, NY in 2015 to be the artist in residence at the Studio Museum of Harlem. Casteel’s new community, rich in both culture and history, invigorated her painting practice. The artist captures her inspiration by walking around her neighborhood, engaging in conversations with her fellow neighbors, and snapping photographs. She then alters their portraits through broad, gestural paint strokes, giving the viewer a glimpse into their personalities through expression, setting, and objects. In some of her works, Castell also uses alternative color palettes to represent individuals – forcing the viewer to focus on the person and their spirit as opposed to the tone of their flesh.


Jordan Casteel, Fatima, 2018. Photograph courtesy of writer.


In Casteel’s latest series on the community, she broadens the scope of her subject to represent women of color. The artist’s most recent paintings illustrate the way of life for many of her community members: the operation of local businesses. Casteel personifies the entrepreneurship, strife, and legacy of Harlem through merchandise, store signs, photographs, and their proprietors. Beyond the building blocks of a community, there is a connection between the women in her oeuvre and the strong wave of feminism in contemporary art and culture. Whether the protagonist is a man or woman, the artist restores to all her subjects power and place through portraiture – a genre she previously associated with white, affluent men.

Jordan Casteel’s journey to becoming a contemporary artist comes full circle through Returning the Gaze exhibition at the Denver Art Museum. In an interview with The Root, Casteel explains the meaning of having this solo-exhibition in her hometown, “Ten-year-old me would have never thought, that when I was going on a field trip to the Denver Art Museum, that they would dedicate space to me and the work one day.” The exhibition challenges viewers to confront their preconceptions of what portrait painting is and who it serves. Casteel’s paintings and the exhibition distill what it means to be part of a community during this increasingly alienating age; the space also asks visitors to smile at a stranger or exchange a “hello” with an unfamiliar face. The exhibition will be on view through August 18, 2019.