NEW YORK – The Whitney Biennial may be over, but a large-scale painting of Philando Castile that was part of the show remains on view at the New York museum through July 16.
Painted this year by Los Angeles artist Henry Taylor, “The Times Thay Aint a Changing, Fast Enough!” presents an imagined still image of Castile and the gun of St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez, who was found not guilty last week in the fatal shooting of Castile during a traffic stop last summer.
The 8- by 6-foot work is based on the video that Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, captured in the aftermath of the shooting and live-streamed to Facebook, making sure the world saw what happened. Castile is shown in the foreground, lying still in his seat, eyes wide open. In the background is Yanez’s arm, gun and a bit of his torso. But the subject is clearly the fallen Castile. The angle is somewhat off-kilter, reflecting the original video.
When asked by curator Hamza Walker why he painted Castile, Taylor said in an interview with Cultured Magazine:
“It was like, ‘Damn, another brother?’ Not that I was cataloging police shootings, you know, like say, that one painter [Rob Pruitt] who was painting pictures of Obama every day. I wasn’t trying to document every killing, but every once in a while I can’t help but react or respond. It’s not always emotional. But then you just play the video and it’s like, ‘Wow. Wow. Wow.’ ”
Taylor’s decision to isolate and then combine a few freeze frames from the video into a singular composite image was deliberate — it slows down the moment, making space for contemplation and in-person reflection rather than just reacting online.
Taylor’s painting is in no way hyperrealism. There are no bloodstains on Castile’s white shirt, but there are certain mysterious drops of paint, which is indicative of Taylor’s style. And the video does not include one single clear image of Yanez holding the gun and Castile reclining in the car seat.
As any artist would, Taylor took artistic liberties with that moment. He also chose not to include Reynolds, whose footage is in part a selfie video, as she narrated the horrific reality that was happening in front of her, with her 4-year-old daughter in the back seat.
Taylor is always in search of a subject to paint — often family and friends, but also historical figures or people in the news, as well as strangers. In an interview with Hyperallergic, Taylor recalls paying a homeless guy to pose for him after encountering the man at a McDonald’s drive-through. So, for Taylor to paint Castile seemed like a natural move, as he was a figure in the news over the past year.
Taylor did not receive criticism for the work, unlike another painting in the Whitney Biennial. Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket” (2016), showing the disfigured face of Emmett Till, the black victim of a white lynch mob in 1955 Mississippi, was the target of protests for its portrayal of black violence and pain because the artist is white. But whereas Schutz explicitly portrays the violence done to Till, which brings up histories of racism, Taylor’s portrayal of Castile indicates violence only through the presence of the police officer’s gun.
Till’s brutal murder became a catalyst for the civil rights movement. The killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012 by George Zimmerman, who stalked and chased him and then claimed self-defense in the trial that eventually acquitted him, spurred the Black Lives Matter movement that is “working for the validity of black life.” The shooting of Castile added to the urgency of that movement — another situation in which a black man died at the hands of police.
In this context, Taylor’s painting serves as a rallying cry. Yet in carefully painting him, he also creates a sympathetic portrait, asking the viewer to truly see pain and loss rather than viewing the incident as something almost abstract, through the grainy lens of a cellphone or dashcam video.