“James” 2015 by Jordan Casteel

James, by Jordan Casteel (2015)

In James, Jordan Casteel celebrates a sidewalk CD merchant in Harlem. Casteel painted James during her 2015-16 artist residency at the StudioMuseum in Harlem (SMH). As a Museum Educator at SMH at the time, I jumped at the chance to teach from her paintings, especially “James.” Even when I didn’t have a tour scheduled I would visit him. His grandiose presence, high atop his stool, and meticulous wardrobe contrast the fragility in his eyes, an apparent longing for intimacy that I couldn’t shake.

Intimacy is something Casteel’s work embraces. In her earlier practice, she painted Black men in interior spaces – “sitting, crouching, often compositionally confined.” This began after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting of Travon Martin. The subjects for these early works were familiar: her brother, family members, and friends. There was an inherent sense of intimacy based on her relationship with them and her subjects’ relationship with each other.

During her SMH residency, her work moves to the exterior and presents her subjects – street vendors, small business owners and neighbors – on the streets of Harlem. These paintings, based on photographs she took of them in public spaces, document the many hours she spent with these men, talking, taking photos (part of Casteel’s process), getting to know them. This kind of intimacy is the antidote we need as it subverts the dehumanization of the black male figure in the public space.

“I see no color,” as Carlos A. Rodriguez says, “is not the goal. I see your color and honor you. I value your input. I will be educated about your lived experiences. I will work against the racism that harms you. You are beautiful. Tell me how to do better. …That’s the goal.” That’s the antidote.

In a time of social distancing, how can we draw closer and learn? How can we see color and honor it like this? How can I, we, do better?