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James Castle

Knoedler and Co.

At first sight, the works by James Castle in this beautifully installed exhibition look like fragments from a lost civilization. Assembled from bits and pieces of paper and cardboard, their ragged edges and worn surfaces bearing signs of the passage of time, they seem relics of some pre-industrial civilization (perhaps the kind of culture now more politely called "tribal"). So, in fact, they are, in a way: Castle spent his life, from 1900 to 1977, on a farm in rural Idaho. But though the materials he used to create the works on view were scraps and waste products, he has bound them together with care and determination. In pieces reminiscent, in their structural inventiveness and formal intelligence, of Picasso’s cubist constructions of around 1912-1914, he has put a few simple materials together to produce a remarkable density of meaning.

Among a number of extraordinary miniature figures constructed out of pieces of paper, for example, one—five inches high—uses a black band to wrap a delicate green outfit around a folded piece of lined paper. The green shirt or coat, with its little collar, is enough to transform the whole into a human form. In a somewhat larger piece, a blue and white pitcher is produced out of many small rectangles of paper sewn together with string. They form a flat bundle that signifies three-dimensionality without any need to create the illusion of it; substance is brought into being, somewhat as in a cubist drawing or collage, through the accretion of overlapping planes.

Castle was no Picasso: He was not playing the primitive, but was as Outsider as an artist can be. Sent as a child to a school for the non-speaking deaf, he refused to learn even sign language and insisted on returning home, where he stayed for the rest of his life, uneducated in verbal communication. Instead of speaking or writing, he drew, but this too on his own terms. Rejecting the store-bought paper and pencils his parents offered, he drew on scraps with sharpened sticks dipped into an ink he manufactured out of soot and saliva. He satisfied his need for color by mashing found colored papers, and held his constructions together with flour paste and string. Far away from the world of artists, Castle refused throughout his whole life to do anything but make art. Paradoxically, it seems to me, both his isolation and his concentrated and continuous effort led to a production of books, drawings, and assemblages that are not folk art but art, the real thing.

Castle was clearly interested in representing his world. In drawing, he worked at a version of perspective, and some of his pictures of buildings and interiors, when compared to photographs, convey an uncanny sense of specific locations. Others are not recognizable as images of things or places, but remain powerful complexes of form, in the way that architectural elements can be beautiful even abstracted from the buildings they belong to. On a 10 by six inch piece of manila paper-covered cardboard, for instance, Castle used string to assemble what I can’t resist calling slabs of brown-black corrugated cardboard into a solid dark mass, creating an effect of terrific weight and density out of almost nothing (underlined by a little white feather tucked behind a bit of string). Fitted with a string handle from which it can be hung on a wall, this compact sculpture might well have been meant to picture a window. It hardly matters now, when Castle’s works have entered the world of art, in which such unreadable pieces work stunningly as abstractions.

It’s clear that he found the abstract elements he saw in his environment or produced in his drawings and constructions of interest in themselves. One small image conjoins three blocks of different linear patterns—herringbone, vertical lines, rows of x’s—to create a tiny lexicon of white and black, empty and full, dark and light, within a larger decorative frame. A landscape picture drawn over a page of someone’s writing includes similar little blocks of herringbone pattern and x-rows sitting on a mountainside. Do they signify buildings or are they purely visual forms? Either way, their insertion into a representational drawing yields as radical an artistic effect as the subordination of text to image that is the basic structure of the piece. Working inside the silence he chose to amplify by refusing words, Castle created a visual vocabulary both communicative and mysterious.


Paul Mattick

PAUL MATTICK'S book, Business as Usual: The Economic Crisis and the Failure of Capitalism (Reaktion, 2011) is based on articles written for the Rail.


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