1.11 / Review

James Castle: A Retrospective

By Lea Feinstein March 24, 2010

In a time when online photos go viral in seconds and communication is instantaneous, James Castle’s carefully observed and elliptical works are a gentle palliative. A stark contrast to our mechanized, electronic world, the “handmade-ness” of his diminutive drawings, assemblages, and illustrated little books is profoundly appealing. His work speaks volumes to a twenty-first-century audience conversant with the jokes and games of Dada, Duchamp, and Schwitters and the double entendres of collage with recycled materials. A serious critical appraisal of Castle’s work is currently on view in a retrospective at the UC Berkeley Art Museum until April 25.

Born deaf at the turn of the twentieth century to poor Idaho farmers, James Castle never learned to lip-read, speak, or read. But during his lifetime (1899-1977), he drew thousands of images depicting his rural surroundings and his family’s farmhouse interiors in unerring perspective and highly personal arrangements. Completely self-taught, he literally created his own universe from scratch, making drawings on found papers with sharpened sticks and a medium of soot mixed with his own saliva. He also created hundreds of cardboard sculptures and handmade books, many on view in the current show. The works are small and subtle, and the fragile papers require dim lighting. It is unfortunate that the heavy concrete walls of Berkeley’s bunker-like museum overwhelm the delicacy and humor of Castle’s creations.

Farmscape with large central plank totem, n.d.; soot-and-spit drawing with stick-applied lines and wiped soot wash on cream paper; 8 5/8 x 10 1/8 in. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley.

Castle was a master of his homemade medium, extracting a full range of tones and composing his landscapes with great awareness of the picture plane. In Farmscape with large central plank totems (all works undated) the front plane tips away from the viewer. A looming vertical, cropped at the top of the drawing, pins the distant farmhouse and outbuildings to the foreground. A similar shorter form is repeated at the left, linking the middle distance with a cast shadow angled toward the left margin. The untouched cream color of the paper works as sky, space, and light.

In Gabled building in vertical segments, Castle seems to play with reality, creating a rhythmic line of “columns”―sections sliced from a barn building and spaced like gap teeth. Visible through the columns, another gabled building doubles the roofline. A strong cast shadow connects foreground to middle ground. Three forms in the front sport linear “halos” or hats, and might be stand-ins for people, like the cardboard constructions Girls in tan coats with gable or landscape faces. While Castle depicted architectural forms in their environs fairly realistically, his treatment of figures was schematic and symbolic, not descriptive. He created whole populations of freestanding three-dimensional assemblages in cardboard and string: figures, barnyard animals, and birds; square-wheeled carts, slatted screen doors, windows, light switches, and chairs. These works have a lively vigor and antic humor that reflect the artist’s acute powers of observation, as well as his arduous, ingenious, and clumsy craft. According to depictions in some of Castle’s drawings, he created whole scenes with these constructions, propping them against the house drawings and landscape views tacked to his bedroom walls. His small books lay on the floor in front of the scene.

Perhaps the richest and most intriguing items in Castle’s extensive output are these handmade books and his text experiments. They range in size from tiny stamp-sized folders to palm-sized works and single-volume encyclopedic catalogs of little faces and indecipherable pictographs resembling the elements and density of a Mayan codex. It is difficult to know what they meant for him.

His family reports, in Jeffrey Wolf’s film “James Castle: Portrait of an Artist,” the DVD included in the catalog, that James Castle could not read, but he was fascinated by books, words, and letterforms, and invented his own versions. In the film curators speculate that he was inspired by and copied from the magazines, calendars, letters, and stamps that

Girls in tan coats with gable or landscape faces, n.d.; corrugated cardboard, and mixed paper, cut, torn, folded, and wrapped; punched, stitched and tied with string; dark purple felt-tipped marker, wiped soot wash; 11 1/2 x 5 1/8 in. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley. 

passed through the post office his parents kept in their general store. In “Man of Signs,” paired letters, and PURE ! DISCUISSES / BLAWS Castle has unfolded an envelope and drawn on its inner surface his own stamps and sets of letters, comparable to the phonemes representing sounds in manuals for the deaf. In REGIstered MAil: Roman, Greek, and Cyrillic letters, some modified (undated), Castle alters an existing book, drawing over the printed text with his own hand-lettered enlargements of English letterforms, and his personal variations on the Greek and Cyrillic alphabets.

“Man of Signs,” paired letters, and PURE ! DISCUISSES / BLAWS, n.d.; soot-and-spit drawing with stick-applied lines on tan paper (from flattened, commercially printed envelope ). Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley.

Contextualizing Castle’s work is problematic. Should he be classified strictly as an outsider artist, like Bill Traylor and Howard Finster, or can his work, which has elements in common with drawings by Van Gogh and Vuillard, find a place in the mainstream? Dealers, curators, and critics interviewed in Wolf’s film come down squarely on both sides. Does it matter? Traylor’s elegant arabesques, Finster’s logorrheic creations, and Henry Darger’s strange narratives of hermaphroditic girl soldiers are crossovers from the world of folk and visionary art and are collected by major museums of modern art.

It might also be interesting to consider Castle’s work alongside that of Joseph Grigely, a contemporary artist whose deafness and Post-it note communication shapes his work. Or to juxtapose Castle’s letterings with the early text drawings of theater artist Robert Wilson, who suffered from severe stuttering as a child. In whatever context the work is framed, the richness of Castle’s universe is abundantly clear.

This ambitious review of Castle’s work, with its extensive history, catalogue, and film, foregrounds his disability, his geographic isolation, and lack of art-world knowledge. The lengthy descriptions of each item in the checklist concentrate on the arcane origins of each material: spit, milk carton interior, etc. Nevertheless, his art appeals because it is inventive, ingenuous, unselfconscious, and accomplished. An exhibition of this magnitude argues for the importance of the work.


"James Castle: A Retrospective" is on view at the UC Berkeley Art Museum through April 25, 2010

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