June 2009, The Curious Case of James Castle

Spit, Soot, String…
The Curious Case of James Castle 

I wasn’t lucky enough to go the James Castle retrospective in Philadelphia with over 300 drawings and sculptures that closed in January and I won’t be able to make it to Chicago, where that show traveled to, or Berkeley, where it goes after that, but I would go to it if it comes to New York, which is being rumored as a final destination. The show is wandering much like the artist himself did, but his wandering was around farm country in Idaho. I have to be satisfied to be in New York City now where there are two awe inspiring shows up of his work. One at Knoedler and Company, who was the first gallery in New York City to show Castle’s work, and one at Ameringer Yohe Fine Arts, both shows are equally inspiring. With all this Castle-mania going on you might think he is being over exposed. Think again. James Castle’s work is only apart of his story; his life is even more extraordinary.
Castle was born in 1899 in Idaho. He was born two months premature when his mother was forced to put out a fire that a lightning strike had caused near their house. After she distinguished it James was born: tiny, deaf and mute. His life of 78 years was spent wandering the farm lands of Idaho, observing, scavenging a variety of paper, cardboard, newspaper, magazines and envelopes and then creating a alchemic process of distilling an inkish charcoal from soot with his spit to create his magical medium of choice. He used this simple medium to create mesmerizing drawings of subjects from landscapes, architectural interiors and exteriors to portraits and simple still lifes.
His parents and him lived on three different farms in Idaho. The family ran mercantile stores with post offices in them that were a mainstay of Castle’s “dumpster diving”. James also had free reign to roam the countryside finding more material and observing his subject matter. He would pirate empty chicken coops and deserted shacks to create his small extraordinary masterpieces, reporting a time in the west that will never return again. His resourcefulness and focused attention to his surroundings make him and his self-taught art more than an “outsider” in the art world, but a way out there outsider. 
He was sent to a deaf school when he was ten but refused to learn to sign, read or read lips. He was the consummate artist without knowing what an artist was, indeed his relationship with his gift and with his environment places him apart from “inside” artists.  He was comfortable with what he was given and did beyond the most he could with it. He communicated more with his facile art than most people could ever with words. He left the deaf school having learned little and returned home and continued his opus of sepia specific art. There were several pieces in both shows that were signed in a graceful but immature form that seem to be a part of the work rather than apart from it. His parents tried to teach him a trade but were thwarted by James lack of interest or participation, before long he would be collecting paper and sticks to create more of his emblematic tableaus. No brushes or pencils, a dab of color here and there, but other than that an acute sense of place and a keen sense of telling his story make his work not only memorable but time stopping.  Although his work has been described as naïve or primitive, my viewing finds this to be a misconception because of his masterly use of perspective.  It is always hauntingly perfect.
His sculptural work created by sewing cloth, paper and sticks together are biblical in their depiction of strollers, bikes and human-like creations.  He was known far and wide in Idaho as a gentle, energetic man who would stock his subject matter and was a perfectionist about how he presented it. The process that he used was as well honed as any contemporary artist. He was always making art; it was his life, a Van Gogh-ish like passion without the color and insanity, proven by his voluminous body of work.  His inspiration was the world he wandered and he mastered. He was a stout man with a far off look in his eye and although he could not speak he was a voice from the wilderness that cannot be ignored and will reverberate into the future. 


Charles Long

Charles Long is a writer in New York.

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