Beyond Soot and Spit: Rethinking James Castle
James Castle: People, Places & Things at the New York Studio School
January 29 to March 4, 2018
8 West 8th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues
New York City, nyss.org
Let’s blame it on the constant digital barrage. Lately, news about artists has threatened to distract us from actually examining their art. Some of the most captivating stories are about artists tagged as outlier, outsider, or self-taught—stories of, say, an eccentric mystic creating prescient abstract paintings; of a reclusive janitor secretly making comic strips of gender ambiguous children. And then there’s James Castle.
Who can look at his eked out dark little interiors without wanting to learn Castle’s story? Born profoundly deaf, mute and dirt poor in Idaho in 1899, his desire to make art was so urgent that he drew using soot scraped from a wood stove, moistened with saliva and applied with sharpened sticks on discarded scrap paper or unfolded cardboard containers. But let’s put aside the story and look intently at his work. James Castle: People Places & Things, curated by Karen Wilkin at the New York Studio School, gives us a new opportunity to reassess what really makes his work so fascinating.
Although it may seem incredible, when we look closely it becomes apparent that in these drawings we see a mind making a systematic inquiry into the expressive and formal possibilities of representation. Meaning that we see someone, though unschooled, not just dutifully trying to replicate his surroundings in a drawing, but doing it with an awareness of just how he is structurally recreating his world and endowing it with feeling. What he chooses to depict and with how much detail indicates where his attention was fixed. His ubiquitous rectangles, for example, not only serve as building blocks of figuration, but are meaning-filled vessels: Pictures, doorways, windows and the drawing itself exist on an equivalent level with other rectangular objects. Tabletops are rectangles strewn with marks representing objects.
In series of works in this exhibition Castle is seen building his understanding of pictorial structure. Several drawings of the same scene change his point of view: more to the right side, or from a slightly lower vantage point. These shifts affect the representations in the picture. A window seen from the side can go from a dark rectangle in one drawing to open up to the landscape in another. A strange face haunting a little interior turns out to be a doorway containing a sliver of patterned wall hung with eye-like pictures.
From an early age he intently, privately, and with no knowledge of art or how it is made, produced hundreds of small works. A former chicken coop and then a trailer became his studio on his parents’ small subsistence farm in Idaho. After they died, it was willed to his sister and he lived there with her family his entire adult life. But we shouldn’t overly romanticize this vision of a little deaf mute boy spitting into soot, and scratching out drawings on materials he scavenged from the trash. It’s not as if they were so poor they couldn’t afford pencils and paper. In fact he was eventually supplied with oil sticks and watercolors. The way he used materials indicated something much deeper than mere penurious ingenuity.
The use of found materials was a way to own his surroundings. He could barely communicate beyond basic gestures and he refused to do farm chores, but the alchemical transformation of the byproducts of his immediate environment into depictions of it, became a way of understanding and laying possession to surroundings to which he probably felt excluded.
He attended a school for the deaf for five years when he was ten, and what occurred there is a mystery. He left at what must have been the middle of puberty, but sexualized bodies do not make an appearance in his work, and because he was not able to use what he learned to communicate beyond basic signing, the possibilities of human relationships seem to have been limited. Instead, like many artists, he used drawing to understand his relationship to his world. Though interiorized in feeling, his work was not about a rich fantasy life like many outliers, and unlike most mainstream artists, his explorations were of necessity more urgent. Looking closely one can see that through his work he began to study how his physical reality was put together.
Nothing is dated here and any ideas of chronology can only be speculative. Nevertheless it is not hard to sense a progression from detailed drawings of his immediate environment—a kitchen, a bedroom, the side of a house, or a view of a field—to a more sophisticated deconstruction of pictures, where abstract form is understood as meaning. Several drawings are devoted to iconic house forms that register as ambiguous symbols.
One of the great strengths of Wilkin’s exhibit is how the drawings are often augmented with James Castle’s source material, which he had carefully preserved. Castle drew inspiration from sources that at first seem so random that it is only when we look to their transformation that we see what might have attracted him. It is usually a fascination with the way a form conveys feeling.
A panel from the comic strip “Henry“ is transformed from a silly scene of the dopy overgrown boy. He has fallen asleep as he digs a pitchfork into a garden plot, a trail of Z’s rising from his head as his perturbed mother looks out at him through a window. Castle turns this, like much of his work, into a dark existential moment. The Z’s are gone, but the strings connecting the stakes demarcating the garden plot are carefully reproduced, as is the side of the house with the window and a shrub in the background. But his mother is barely limned in the window, and Henry becomes a misshapen homunculus with a pitchfork. The shrub in the background goes from a cheery bush to a harbinger of something gray and ominous. Is Castle’s Henry digging his own grave? While the white picket fence in the background is preserved as merely a white shape, Castle amusingly reproduces an anomaly in the newsprint as a strange ellipse. Castle very diligently constructed the black outline that frames the original panel, thus emphasizing the successive rectangles of garden plot, house, and window.
At what point Castle starts to recreate actual objects from the world is unknown, but it seems to come from a more confident and sophisticated understanding of representation. Pieced together drawings are constructed into simulacra of articles of clothing. Or a drawing of a typographic word like “plays” will become the subject of an entire piece. The font is carefully delineated, but the letters become individual calligraphic personae, each serif endowed with unique expressive qualities. He may have been unable to read, but it seems deliberate to represent that word “plays” so evocatively.
He had also created whole hand-bound volumes of images. Apparently one of the few things he did learn at the school for the deaf was how to bind sheets of paper into books. The books are strange amalgams of pages of little rectangles, sometimes twelve to a page, mostly containing portraits, but some are strange symbols or objects, and the images are surrounded by scribbly lines to indicate print. They resemble high school yearbooks or product catalogues. It is this eerie cataloguing aspect that exemplifies the systematic quality of Castle’s work. Having lived until the late 70s, he must have encountered television, and it is notable that some of the portraits look as if their heads are TV sets with faces appearing on screen.
While Castle’s story is compelling, unlike many outliers he was acknowledged as an artist during his life. When he was fifty, Castle’s nephew attending art school in Portland, Oregon brought a few of his drawings to the attention of a professor and his talent was immediately recognized. For the next 20 years until his death in 1977 he became celebrated in the Pacific Northwest with eight one man shows, only to lapse back into obscurity until 1998, when twenty years after his death, his family finally allowed access to the work. Its appearance at New York’s Outsider Art Fair reignited national interest, followed by a retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2008, museum accessions, and a presence at the Venice Biennale in 2013.
Examining the pictorial thinking of “outsiders” often takes a back seat to the thrill of rescuing overlooked objects from the trash bin of history. An excitement that is fueled by a perhaps unconscious nostalgia for artistic sincerity is elicited by work that often bears a coincidental visual relationship to modernism but is untainted by modernism’s worldly ambition. This is not really the case with James Castle. The correspondence to mainstream art in Castle’s work, while unwitting, is not superficial. Though it appeared he was indifferent to his “success,” the diligence and concentration that he brought to his work are qualities of many mainstream artists, and tells us a lot about what it means to be an artist. As an artist, he exists on a twentieth century continuum somewhere between Albert Pinkham Ryder and Agnes Martin. And though isolated, James Castle lived in our time and was certainly touched by it. Art has historically been forged in solitude, and though it is tempting to romanticize it, his solitude, while deeper than that of most artists, fueled a quiet passion that is evident in the mood and intensity of the work.