I’ve never been much good at painting. I’ve tried my hand at it sporadically over the years- hoarding countless half-used tubes of acrylics and oils, watercolor palettes and dried up gauche; a few times a year I sit down with one of these mediums, determined that this time I will get it right, though I never have (yet!). It is perhaps partly because of this that I have such an overwhelming sense of awe when I look at paintings by the likes of the women included in this list, crafting utterly gorgeous, poignant, and political portraits and dreamscapes on canvas.
‘The Tedious Matter of Personal Will’ (2019) / ‘Which Lake Do I Prefer’ (2018)
Chloe Wise is a 29-year-old, NYC-based artist producing work across a vast array of media, including sculpture (she gained notoriety for her ‘bread bags’ in 2015, hyper-realistic plastic-urethane sculptures of pancakes and baguettes fashioned as handbags and adorned with logos) and video, but with a specialization in oil painting. Her portraits of friends, herself and her cat Pluto the ‘people’ -and pets- ‘[she cares] about’, are gorgeous- a sort of heightened realism, where every color is super saturated, everyone’s skin ultra-glossy- her figures, alone or in groups, occupying a world filtered through a layer of fantasy.
Indeed, the way Chloe produces work lends her work this quality- speaking to Garage Magazine, she explains the process of ‘covering’ her models ‘in coconut oil, or some sort of reflective…organic material that [invites] the light to bounce around in a painterly way’, which she then photographs rather than working from life (so that the light is unchanging), and sometimes then uses Photoshop to manipulate and perfect her composition. At every stage of her process, some level of artifice heightens reality to a more beautiful, more controlled state.
Her 2017 show, ‘Of false beaches and butter money’, combines elements of canonical tableaux with advertisement, her paintings which could otherwise exist in centuries long past, in some artist’s studio in Europe are almost jarringly grounded in 21st-Century America by her inclusion of brand-name products, such as a tin of Nestlé cream and a carton of Lactaid milk. These dreamlike portraits of beautiful women set against idyllic pastoral landscapes of green fields and blue skies toy with ideas of the ‘presence and absence of unchangeability and perishability, fiction and reality’.
This surrealness is maintained in her new work- her latest show of paintings, ‘Not That We Don’t’ -which I have been lucky enough to see at Almine Rech in London- is a series of group portraits, she invites her viewers to consider her subjects in relation to one another, although the actual relationships at play- between the individuals within each frame, and between sitter and painter, are ambiguous. At times the composition of her paintings seem casual- a group shot, taken at a party or for a yearbook: whilst other works are tightly cropped around one figure, who gazes out at the viewer, surrounded by an array of limbs and hands of unseen others. At these moments it seems as though you were spotting a friend or crush in a crowded room, their presence filling your vision. As an artist, I really connect with Chloe’s love of people, and in particular these extraordinarily intimate close-ups of her subjects- ‘I’ve always been so drawn by the face. More so than the figure, it’s the face for me.’
‘What’s precious inside of him does not care to be known by the mind in ways that diminish its presence (All American)’ (2017) / ‘The Bathers’ (2015)
Georgia-born and Baltimore-based portrait painter Amy Sherald, 45, confronts the complicated themes of race, identity, and patriotism in the US through her work. Whilst in grad school at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Sherald made the conscious decision to exclusively portray people of color in her paintings, which are rooted in the tradition of American Realism. The genre, popularised in the 20th-Century saw artists depict ordinary people in everyday tasks, rendering scenes which one might see in a hotel lobby, or upon a fisherman’s dock. Amy’s work reflects this, whilst challenging the whitewashing of American history in the portraits hung in museums and galleries across the country- her subjects are also ordinary, mirrors of their viewers ‘ notable not for their race’ alone, but also ‘for their familiarity.’
Painting in a style which the New York Times calls ‘stylized realism’, Amy’s subjects are invariably African-American, and yet she renders their skin in grisaille- that is, grayscale, an absence of color. Speaking to artnet , Sherald confesses the chance nature of this signature feature of her work- ‘It was kind of by accident. I had started a painting and I was going to do glazes of brown over the grey. But then I decided not to because It looked beautiful the way that it was’. It was only later that she, along with fans and critics, attached meaning to this stylistic choice- ‘the commentary and the discourse, that comes afterwards; it wasn’t in my head at that moment’, and yet now holds symbolic weight, a means of ‘excluding the idea of colour as race from [her] paintings by removing ‘colour” altogether.
Sherald has also discussed at length the significance of her penchant for posing subjects so that they look their viewer in the eye. ‘The gaze is different’, she remarks, because it is reactionary- a comment on the experience of black Americans, both in regard to her own life, and the nation’s fraught past. Amy describes how attending private schools as a child resulted in a very early sense of being watched: as ‘one of two or three black children, I was raised to be conscious of how I acted, spoke and dressed. This performing aspect of my identity was cultivated from the beginning’, and in an interview with Ursula acknowledges the violent history of this scrutinization of black people. ‘My parents grew up, in the Deep South, in the 30s and 40s, and that they were really lucky not to get lynched, my father in particular. I’ve always read about lynching and the reasons why men…were lynched, sometimes for just looking at a white woman, in passing, just an incidental look or a perceived look. So for me, the idea of the gaze is really powerful. I don’t take it for granted’.
‘The gaze’ in her work is thus multi-faceted; these portraits invite through their very existence the gaze of others- they exist to be looked at, discussed, scrutinized, in some ways maintaining the constant, suspicious observance of African-Americans. And yet, as a black painter depicting black subjects, Amy’s practice harks back to the photographs compiled by W.E.B Du Bois for the Paris Exposition of 1900 -images which she has noted as major inspiration- which saw African American men, women and children photographed in self-styled poses—‘Some of the first images where blacks were able to present themselves the way they wanted to be seen,’  she notes. ‘Painting images that look like that was really important, not just for ourselves, but for the rest of the world to see us that way too.’ So the gaze of her subjects is also a reinforcement of autonomy, of accepting the stares whilst staring out oneself- they display, according to New York Times culture critic Wesley Morris ‘blackness without the gaze of whiteness.’
‘The world kind of told me what my limitations were’, Sherald told Hyperallergic : ‘I began to push back in my 30s.’ And she pushed back, hard; in 2018, at the age of 44, Sherald was commissioned as the first African American woman to paint a portrait of a First Lady, her powerful portrayal of Michelle unveiled alongside Kehinde Wiley’s painting of Barack at Washington D.C’s National Portrait Gallery. At that moment, she saw the glass ceiling which others had built for her, and she herself had maintained, shatter- ‘Now I see that I can have anything that I want. I just have to pull my chair up to the table; I have to ask for it.’
‘Boxers’ (2017) / ‘Boy, mirror’ (2016)
‘My paintings are not grounded in anything real. For me, painting is a space for you to dream within or to have a fantasy. It’s about instinct and emotion. I don’t ever want it to look like the real world’, says Faye Wei Wei of her work. Indeed, the 23 year-old, London based artist seems to inhabit in her day-to-day life a dreamy world- describing in an interview with It’s Nice That a daily routine which filled me with envy- “I wake up after a long sleep, I go down to my studio in my Chinese silk dragon trousers and corduroy apron…I make some food… and I will sit and just think and wonder and read for a couple of hours. Then I will begin to draw and paint with all my mind bursting with poetry and imagery, sacred love visions.”
These ‘love visions’ which Faye captures in paint are large in scale, and she traces her penchant for producing oversized work to her high school. Her classmates were ‘pretty much all boys’, and as such, the teenage Faye grew competitive, even ‘obnoxious’, asserting her presence by ‘making really big drawings and occupying a lot of space’. Now though, far from a means of challenging the world outside, Faye seems to view these 72 x 54 inch canvases as both an extension of herself -essential to her practice, as they are ‘exactly the right weight and size in proportion to [her] own body’- and as a sort of friend. As such, Faye is able to ‘dance with the painting’, describing her process as a series of gestures. This composed fluidity in her mark making is evident in the delicate, often sparse lines which make up the figures, animals, symbols, and motifs which populate her fantasy world; including mythological characters, snakes and sphynxes, overlaid upon hazy backdrops of wine reds and fleshy pinks.
Both the content and the style of Faye’s work is spiritual and poetic; there is often no clear narrative or connection between the different elements of a single painting, but a half-remembered familiarity to the scene, as if one were trying to recall five different dreams dreamt in one night. Faces of lovers merge with biblical echoes of Eden, sea urchins float in foregrounds whilst ghostly minotaur heads and crude Poseidon’s drift in seas of red and ultramarine. Faye acknowledges the intuitive, almost mystical way that an idea or image for a painting will come to her- ‘floating around [her] mind for a while’; ‘if it’s a really particularly delicious image’, she explains ‘I won’t need to even draw it out because it will be so strongly attached to all the tiny feelers in my brain already— when that happens the image comes out really naturally and almost easily, as if it already existed on the canvas.’ I find it fascinating how this process is traceable in the echoes of déjà vu which laps at the shore of my mind when I look at Faye’s paintings: as though everything my eyes see had already been formed long ago in my mind.
I also hugely appreciate that Faye seems as practical as she is dreamy; addressing the reasons behind changing her name at the age of 16- she was actually born Faye Wong, sharing the name of a ‘super amazing’ Chinese popstar – she realized that keeping her birth-name would make it near-impossible to google her work. And so she chose Wei Wei, of course after Ai one of China’s most prominent artists -who was at that time incarcerated in an ongoing government crackdown on outspoken critics of the communist regime, paying a sort of homage to him as the first person ‘with a Chinese face’ to be ‘really important in the western world and in the art world.’ Faye grew up in London, part of a first-generation immigrant family, and having experienced the competition of the city’s art-world first-hand, recognizes the importance of ‘connecting’ her own face to her work. ‘I want younger girls – especially Asian girls – to feel that making art could be a possibility for them,’ she told Something Curated her love for her work spilling over; ‘There’s nothing like the feeling of making something. It is the highest form of romance.’
‘Galen 2′ (2014) / ‘Subway Hands 2′ (2017)
Jordan Casteel, born 1989 in Denver Colorado, discovered her love for painting quite late, during her college years. Originally studying sociology and anthropology at Agnes Scott College in Georgia, an oil-painting class taken during her semester abroad in Tuscany changed everything; ‘I found myself at ease, capable, and free within the medium of oil paint and that brought me great joy’ she said in an interview with Vogue – ‘I very distinctly remember thinking that this was something I could do for the rest of my life.’
And that is what she chose to do; switching majors upon her return, Jordan graduated with a degree in studio art, before carrying out her MFA at Yale -the best painting school in the country- despite having virtually no formal training. The style she had, and has, is entirely her own ‘a loose, exaggerated manner of rendering the human figure’, which she confesses is her only way of painting- ‘I don’t know how to do anything else; I tried; it was a disaster’.
After graduating from Yale and moving to Harlem, NYC, Jordan began to focus her work on the men in her life, painting 54 x 72-inch portraits of friends and lovers in their homes. She researched and consciously rejected the homogenous portrayal of black male bodies in the US, which are vilified, sexualized and even criminalized on the basis of race. For these reasons, she decided not to show her subjects’ genitals in her nude portraits, and through her use of color reinforces the fact that ‘perceiving blackness is not a simple matter’. In her painting ‘Miles and Jojo’ for example, or ‘Elijah’ , the skin tones of her sitters are made up of electric blues and greens, pinks and lilacs- it is not the color of their skin which is her focus, but their individual humanity, the nuance of who each man is, as he gazes out of his portrait to look us in the eye.
Casteel also painted large-scale portraits of men she met in her neighborhood, capturing their character and the character of the streets they inhabit- sat proudly upon stoops and porches, in front of graffitied walls, astride bikes and behind stalls. Whilst such huge, detailed portraits -painted from the hundreds of photographs Casteel takes of each subject to work from- allow a real feeling of intimacy, as though we too have met and got to know each man, I also hugely enjoy her ‘Subway’ series, which are instead painted from photos taken surreptitiously on NYC public transport, and are intimate in an entirely different way.
Instead of a prolonged exchange of eye-contact with a single, named sitter, these paintings are a glimpse, a remembered detail of a stranger- in one we see a sleeping commuter prop up his chin on his palm, in another, disembodied hands tenderly cradle a book. Not only are these paintings much smaller in scale in a literal sense- her canvases half the size of those used in her full portraits- but the framing of each composition, tightly cropped so as to not show a full face, or showing only a pair of hands or feet, reflect the tight space of the city’s packed subway, strangers’ bodies pressed against each other as they travel – separate but together- from points A to B.
Jordan’s work is currently on display at her first major institutional show at the Denver Art Museum in her hometown. The exhibition’s title, ‘Jordan Casteel: Returning the Gaze’, reflects the very essence of her portraiture, in which she seeks to elevate her subjects to the position of those who have historically been deemed important enough to be immortalized in oils, whilst jettisoning ‘the artifice that empowers traditional portraits’. Her subjects are not heroes, saints or monarchs, but neither are they villains, or objects- they are ordinary people, and that is extraordinary enough.