Berkeley Art Museum February 3 – April 25, 2010

“What’s missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand.” When New York Times critic Roberta Smith threw out this challenge as part of her sweeping Feb. 10 critique of New York’s depressingly uniform “post-Minimal” museum scene, she probably didn’t have James Castle particularly in mind. But if you’re looking for an antidote to the art world’s current penchant for commodified cerebration, James Castle: A Retrospective fills the bill.

James Castle: Girls in tan coats with gable or landscape faces, n.d.; corrugated cardboard, tan paper from corrugated cardboard, cream paper, wrapping paper with silver printed design, thin gray cardboard faced with green paper, gray-green paper (from bag); cut, torn, folded, and wrapped; punched, stitched and tied with thin and thick white string; dark purple felt-tipped marker, wiped soot wash; 11 1/2 × 5 1/8 in.; The James Castle Collection, L.P. Courtesy of
J Crist Gallery, Boise, Idaho.

Originating at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2008, the show moved to Chicago’s Art Institute and is now making its final appearance squeezed into rather cramped quarters at U.C. Berkeley’s art museum. The fact that the retrospective never made it to New York, despite terrific reviews garnered by smaller gallery exhibitions of Castle’s work there, is further evidence that Smith’s argument is on target.

Castle was born in Idaho in 1899, died there 78 years later, and in between lived on a series of small farms. The “intense personal necessity” that led him to create tens of thousands of drawings and objects is suggested  by his use of childhood memories as subject matter as well as by the volume of his production. The artist’s hand is everywhere apparent, and not just his hand: his idiosyncratic materials include cast-off calendars, food wrappers, and homework papers from his extended family as well as ink devised from soot mixed with saliva.His work’s jubilant energy, its delight in the physical work of transforming everyday scenes and materials into miniature theaters of personal enchantment, is precisely what’s lacking in so many brainy, bloodless museum shows.

All of Castle’s work is paper-based and small scale, which is certainly a strike against him in a museum culture that favors (in Smith’s words) “artists with international star power who work big.” His drawings of farmhouse rooms, barn interiors, fence and roads portray these places with eidetic precision, in deep grays and blacks that give them the haunted look of old photographs. Sometimes the addition of patterning or strange unexplained objects (giant bottles, people with chairs or dressers in place of heads) puts a surrealist spin on these otherwise cozily ordinary scenes.

James Castle: Bedroom with spot-patterned wallpaper, brass bed, bundle on dresser, and star drawing on wall, n.d.; soot-and-spit drawing with stick-applied lines and wiped soot wash on thin gray/tan cardboard (flattened matchbox sleeve); signed by artist in blue ballpoint pen, lower right: James Castle; Verso: Bedroom viewed from opposite side; 5 × 8-1/2 in.; Collection of Nancy and Michael Yecies, Gladwyne, Pennsylvania.

He also made small sculptures of poultry, people, and household objects—a chair, a screen door, a doorknob—by folding and layering the same kind of recycled paper and cardboard on which he did his drawings and binding the pieces with twine stitching. They’re playfully totemic, hinting at unexplained rituals or games.

Even more mysterious are Castle’s books, of which he apparently made thousands. Some are old textbooks repurposed by drawing and painting on their pages, aping the look of photo albums, yearbooks, or magazines; most were made de novo on stitched-together recycled paper. In addition to collage and drawings, they usually include quantities of letter forms—English, Cyrillic, or alphabets of Castle’s own invention—beautifully rendered but, aside from the occasional recognizable word, liberated from any commonplace meaning.

As even a reader unfamiliar with the artist’s story may have already guessed, Castle made his way into the art world via the door marked “outsider”—a portal that welcomes the kind of hand-made, deeply sincere work that’s otherwise so often kicked to the curb. Apparently born without hearing, Castle never learned to speak, read, or use standard sign language, despite a five-year sojourn in a school for the deaf. He loved to draw, however, and his large and loving family allowed him to spend almost his entire life and virtually all his waking hours making his drawings, sculptures, and books.

It is no insult to say there’s something profoundly childlike about Castle’s art. His relish for endlessly recreating the world around him, out of the simplest means, evokes the omnivorous curiosities and appetites of childhood. And like a child consumed by play, he’s unhampered by self-doubt or the all-too-familiar anxiety of influence.

While so many artists seem to be struggling to escape from their training and the confinement of their own personalities into the thin air of intellectual puzzle-making, Castle burrows deeper and deeper into his own small patch of turf and finds treasure there. The result is an exhilarating exhibition beside which more standard contemporary fare (I’m thinking of the Ari Marcopoulos survey that was also at the Berkeley Art Museum when the Castle retrospective first opened) looks formulaic and a little tired.

At the same time, Castle’s lack of art-world credentials and motives can leave both curators and audience at a loss, cast adrift from the usual critical vocabulary of influence and intention. For example, the retrospective’s wall labels are nervous about how much formal art knowledge to attribute to Castle. “He mastered linear perspective, presumably on his own,” reads one, as though worried a secret MFA degree might yet come to light. (In fact, it seems obvious that Castle’s perspectival expertise derives from studying and copying photographs.)

Another label calls it “surprising” that Castle’s artistic “strategies” include “realism, abstraction, collage, grid, and serial arrangement of images and the use of text or language”—surprising because “Castle had almost no knowledge of the professional art world.” Only someone lost inside the hermetic bubble of the professional art world would think it has a monopoly on these commonplaces of our visual culture.

On the other hand, you don’t have to be a curator to wonder what Castle had in mind with his books full of incomprehensible writing, his pictures of rooms crawling with polka dots and of people with heads like pieces of furniture. Oh for an artist’s statement, a theoretical rationale!

There’s a kind of comfort in knowing we couldn’t get answers to our questions about meaning and intent even if Castle were alive and standing beside us. What drove him was a mystery, almost certainly to him as well as to us, not because he was an “outsider” but because he was an artist. Art that does its job flies higher than theory and runs deeper than words, and it finds a million different ways to do so. Castle’s way is one well worth looking at: it’s too bad New Yorkers won’t get the chance.


Tessa DeCarlo

Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.