In his iconic The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison writes, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.”
Referencing Ellison’s novel, Brooklyn-based artist and recent Yale MFA graduate Jordan Casteel investigates the notion of invisibility and visibility in her monumental portraits of nude black men in repose in her exhibition Visible Man at Sargent’s Daughters. Often sitting in domestic interiors, surrounded by seemingly mundane everyday objects such as photographs, liquor bottles and an always necessary disco-ball, Casteel’s subjects gaze, like Manet’s Olympia, from the painting, directly at the viewers. Aside from Manet, Casteel’s stunning paintings recall numerous art historical references from the lounging form of Ingres’ Grande Odalisque to the surreally colored skin of Picasso’s blue period.
Perhaps both fortunately and unfortunately, Casteel’s exhibition could not be more profound as the black male body as a contested site has become a national topic of discussion with the murder of Michael Brown and the ensuing protests and police action in Ferguson, Missouri. This is certainly not to say Visible Man would not be timely without these recent occurrences, considering I could run through a list of events such as the murder of Trayvon Martin that would also deeply resonate with these paintings.
While undeniably revealing her vast painterly skill, Casteel’s paintings provide a rich and complex basis to discussing the duel forces of visibility and invisibility inherent in being a person of color, as well as other non-normative identities.
Like Ellison’s evocative quote, Casteel strives to render her subjects, in some ways, visible, allowing viewers to see her subjects literally laid bare, portraying a relaxed and yet, vulnerable masculinity. Unlike the portraits of Kehinde Wiley, which also present a new take on Old Master paintings, Casteel’s portraits strip her subjects from their cultural signifiers–we don’t know how these men fashion themselves outside of these paintings. Almost like the moving yet enraging in its necessity Twitter hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, Casteel’s portraits humanize these men, contrasting the countless assumptions associated with black male bodies.
Even though Casteel undoubtedly desires to make her subjects visible, she also seems aware of the potential dangerous power dynamic inherent in visibility, particularly for people of color. Looking at the exhibition title, Visible Man could also indicate a more complicated discussion of the regulatory power of visibility, as discussed by Michael Foucault and Frantz Fanon.
Linking disciplinary power and control with visibility and the gaze in his seminal Discipline and Punish, Michael Foucault employs the panopticon as a symbol for society’s regulatory gaze. A prison structure built on the idea that each inmate can be observed (or at least, live with the fear that they are being watched), Foucault notes that “the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce an inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (201).
Moving beyond the walls of the prison to show how the panopticon has expanded to becoming the operating power for society in general, Foucault states, “Power has its principle not so much in a person as in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes in an arrangement whose internal mechanisms produce the relation in which individuals are caught up” (202).
As he continues, “And, in order to be exercised, this power had to be given the instrument of permanent, exhaustive, omnipresent surveillance, capable of making all visible, as long as it could remain invisible. It had to be like a faceless gaze that transformed the whole social body into a field of perception: thousands of eyes posted everywhere…”(214).
Even though Foucault posits that everyone is subjected to this power structure, people of color, as well as many non-normative identities, certainly live under a more scrutinizing, destructive and, at times deadly gaze. While the invisible man is still an essential narrative to understanding blackness, it is hard to deny the duel importance of visibility, particularly when looking at the events in Ferguson, Missouri.
In his Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon describes the moment on a train when he was rendered visible, interpellated by the call “Look, a Negro.” (112). As he explains, “I was responsible at the same time for my race, for my ancestors, I subjected myself to an objective examination, I discovered my blackness, my ethnic characteristics; and I was battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetichism, racial defects, slave-ships and above all else, above all: ‘Sho’ good eatin’” (112).
With these horrific pasts and stereotypes inscribed on his body, Fanon illustrates how the white gaze regulates blackness, rendering these histories inescapable. He writes, “But in my case everything takes on a new guise. I am given no chance. I am overdetermined from without. I am the slave not of the ‘idea’ that others have of me, but of my own appearance” (116). As he continues, “And so it is not how I make a meaning for myself, but it is the meaning that was already there, pre-existing, waiting for me” (134).
Certainly aware of this determining gaze, Casteel in Visible Man presents the unwavering gazes of her artistic subjects as a powerful and subversive tool to dismantle the objectifying gaze of the viewer. With their piercing, unmoving and direct gazes, Casteel’s subjects throw the normative gaze from viewer to art object into question. Her subjects are not objectified black men with beautiful bodies to be gazed at by a gawking, anonymous and let’s be honest, largely white public. They look back with a significant amount of agency, as painted by Casteel.
While Casteel imbues her portraits with agency, she also creates a fascinating dynamic between her art historical references and herself as a black woman artist, making herself visible as well. Unlike Olympia–a portrait of nude white women created by white male painters, Casteel, as a black woman artist painting nudes of black men, subverts this normative art historical power structure. As the bodies of her black male subjects reflect contested sites of history, politics and (in)visibility, so does the body of a black woman painter.