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Painting in Black and White: Race and the New Figurative Art

In their electric new paintings, Jordan Casteel and Celeste Dupuy-Spencer fly the flag for a new wave of American figurative painting that casts the subtleties of race in a newly engaging light.

Aruna D'Souza

Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, Durham, August 14, 2017, 2017. Oil on canvas, 71.1 x 88.9 cm. Courtesy of Marlborough Contemporary, New York

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Jordan Casteel paints the street life of Harlem and its black residents, Celeste Dupuy-Spencer the quirky, and often decrepit, trappings of whiteness. But don't let their subject matter fool you. At heart, these two young artists—both of whom are having buzz-worthy solo shows in New York galleries right now—share a common idea: that to deal with our racist past and present, we need to see the world with empathy and care. The results are compelling, and transformative, and, in very different ways, beautiful.

Jordan Casteel's exhibition at Casey Kaplan is titled Nights in Harlem, and that's precisely what almost all of the 10 oil paintings on view (all from 2017) represent: the people who occupy the sidewalks and stoops of a neighborhood that has always been synonymous with the African American experience in the US. Her decision to focus on night views came from a desire to explore the colors produced when street lights hit skin, clothing, and pavement.

Casteel's choice of subjects stems from something far more personal, however: conversations with her two brothers in the aftermath of the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin, and the acquittal of his killer the following year. Casteel came to realize that there were relatively few images of black men that showed them as the kind of people she knew her brothers to be: fully human, that is to say—people who had social lives and were integral, valued members of families and communities.

From that point, she devoted herself almost exclusively to painting black men and boys, first in interior settings, and now on the street. "I needed to find a way to combine my desire to create a sense of visibility around my family and my brothers that was feeling absent at that time," she has said of her decision.

Jordan Casteel, Joe and Mozel (Pompette Wines), 2017. Oil on canvas, 228.6 x 198.12 cm. Photo: Jason Wyche, courtesy of the artist and Casey Kaplan Gallery, New York

Finding her subjects means, for Casteel, forging relationships—she prowls the streets with her (serious) camera in tow, making eye contact, striking up conversations, learning about people's lives, and taking their pictures. She gets their contact info so she can email them the photos later, and often stays in touch long-term, too; a number of the subjects of the paintings in this show attended the opening, she says. "Q [one of the men she depicts] gave me fifty hugs when he saw the show last night," she laughs. "And he said he would have given me a thousand more if he could! There's something really powerful about knowing that someone has seen you."

So we see Zen walking his dogs, Q having a beer on his stoop, Cowboy E, Sean Cross, and Og Jabar hanging out in front of a parking garage, MegaStarBrand's Louie and A-Thug selling t-shirts on the street, and so on. Each one of these works is highly particular, showing the people represented as individuals through their unique body language, facial expressions, surroundings, and even skin tone: while they are all African American, none of these men are black—instead, their skins reflect the light around them to become peach, purple, orange, brown, red.

Jordan Casteel, Henry, 2017. Oil on canvas, 198.12 x 152.4 cm. Photo: Jason Wyche, courtesy of the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York

No matter how predisposed a viewer might be to see any of the portraits' subjects as types, a few moments of looking makes this impossible. One of the knockout works in the show, Harold, depicts an older gentleman—and really, gentleman is the only appropriate word—sitting in a plastic chair in front a laundromat, with another, younger man standing behind. The fluorescent lights from inside the shop contrast sharply with the reds and yellows cast on the figures outside. Harold and the other man look, not without kindness, at the viewer, bodies relaxed, fully at home; Harold is slightly apprehensive, hands folded in his lap, while his younger companion is confident but also a bit bemused. The surface of the painting is lush and colorful—Casteel is someone who enjoys the sensuality of paint, and the freedom it offers.

If the results seem almost anthropological in their care and specificity, she comes by that approach honestly. "I was always the kid sitting in the corner watching people interact—trying to figure out how and why people developed relationships with each other, in a sort of sociological way," she said in a recent conversation. "I studied sociology and anthropology as an undergraduate, so that way of looking at the world has always been really important to me, as has social justice. When I got to Yale [School of Art, where she completed an MFA in 2014], by my second year I figured out that I could use painting to say the things that I wanted to say on that front—art could be a vehicle to do that. I could focus on a body's humanity—through the idea of empathy."

Jordan Casteel, Amina, 2017. Oil on canvas, 228.6 x 198.12 cm. Photo: Jason Wyche, courtesy of the artists and Casey Kaplan, New York

Celeste Dupuy-Spencer's subjects can be a lot harder to love. Her current exhibition at Marlborough Contemporary is an inventory of white experience, a project that has taken on an added urgency in the age of Trump. "I'm really trying to paint this moment in America, this moment that white people in America are being called towards," she said in a conversation at the gallery the morning after the show opened. "Now we get to not shake off what we are, to acknowledge it. And after violent deconstruction there is actually a possibility of redemption. It's hard, because it produces a lot of fallen heroes, fallen ancestors. But once you do it honestly you get to look at the ancestors again in a more complete way."

It's fitting, then, that the first thing you see when you walk into the space is a small image of Dupuy-Spencer's maternal grandfather (Not Strangers [Jack Dupuy 1924–1961], 2017). The artist grew up in the Hudson Valley, but her maternal family has lived in New Orleans for generations—"since the founding," she laughs. "We were French aristocracy, but we were such slobs that they sent us away to be the aristocracy of the swamps. We're bad! So I have the pride of my family's blood running through my veins, but really it's poisoned blood."

"Its important for me to talk about what I'm seeing when I deconstruct my family's history," she continues, "because now I have the complicated task of balancing love and gratitude with clarity and responsibility. One of the conversations I am hoping to have with this work is one with white people, to ask them to really look hard at their history, and locate where their history lives on inside them today. I think the strong resistance against doing this is that the majority of white people would find that they very clearly and directly owe reparations."

Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, George Jones Greeting the Newest Members of Heaven's Band, 2017. Oil on linen, 165.1 x 215.9 cm. Courtesy of Marlborough Contemporary, New York

The show is filled with paintings that resonate with Dupuy-Spencer for similar reasons—if not coming to terms with her literal ancestry, then coming to terms with what it means to be white. An image of the Cajun Navy, a group of Southerners who went out in their motorboats in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (and more recently, Harvey) on rescue missions (Cajun Navy, August 2016, 2017); a painting of her first love holding a fawn in his arms (R. DiMeo III, 2017); a group of the locals she grew up with hanging out on the porch of the grand Hudson Valley estate that they inherited, without having been left the money to maintain it (Rokeby, 2017)—all of these speak tenderly, if in a complicated way, to her history. The people she paints are often those to whom she feels a deep connection, I observe. "Yes," she replies." But empathy doesn't necessarily mean a free pass."

Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, Love Me, Love Me, Love Me, I'm a Liberal, 2017. Oil on canvas, 50.8 x 50. 8 cm. Courtesy of Marlborough Contemporary, New York

At the same time, works like Not Today Satan (2017) and Love Me, Love Me, Love Me, I'm a Liberal (2017) are unflinching and even a little caustic. The first shows a police car manned by skeletons—a surreal, Book of Revelations-type image of vengeful demons wreaking havoc that seems straight out of James Ensor or even (per the artist) Michelangelo. The second shows a white liberal woman all but hidden by the expected accouterments of her species: photographs of her at the Women's March on Washington, an "I heart NPR" mug alongside a vase of flowers, a mortgage statement, and a profuse bouquet in a vase made by her children. Dupuy-Spencer twists the knife by inserting, front and center, a book—one so on the nose I had to Google to see if it actually existed (it doesn't, thank goodness, but as the artist said, laughing, "if it did I'd be totally on it"): The Burden of Blame, the title blares, How to Convince People That It's Not Your Fault.

Some of the paintings were done in one sitting, such as Durham, August 14, 2017, which she completed hours after seeing the video of anti-racist protesters pulling down a confederate statue in the aftermath of the white supremacists' riot in Charlottesville. Talk about fallen ancestors. Others took far longer. She jokes about her "untrained" technique. She says she bought books on Amazon to help her work out some finer points of her medium—a self-deprecating comment from someone who studied painting with the likes of Amy Sillman and Nicole Eisenman at Bard College—but the slightly naïve approach, awkward spatial relations, jarring color juxtapositions create an effect that is, ultimately, vulnerable, open-hearted, and immediate.

The emotional impact of the work is important for Dupuy-Spencer. "I'm asking people to slow down to look again, to absorb, to feel," she says. "It's the scariest thing you can ask people to do right now. Giving space to feel."

Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, Not Today Satan, 207. Oil on canvas, 35 x 28 inches. Courtesy of Marlborough Contemporary, New York

Aruna D'Souza is a writer on contemporary art, food, culture, feminism, race and diaspora.

Jordan Casteel: Nights in Harlem is on view at Casey Kaplan through October 28.

Celeste Dupuy-Spencer: Wild and Blue is on view at Marlborough Contemporary through October 7.