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JAMES CASTLE: Show and Store

(D.A.P./Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 2011)

I can’t remember being as excited by an art book as I was by James Castle: Show and Store. The reproductions are gorgeous, and the work catalogued within—from a show of Castle’s work at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Spain—is eminently inspiring and moving. And if it isn’t already obvious that the qualified term “outsider art” is stupid and offensive, this book should make it so. This is art and Castle was an artist, full stop.

Unfortunately, Castle is the victim of a biography that threatens to turn him into an oddity or an idiot savant: he was born completely deaf in 1899 on a farm in Idaho, and he never learned to read or communicate in sign language. He was apparently incorrigible and refused to do his chores, preferring instead to draw constantly. His work received limited recognition from the art world in his lifetime, although he did exhibit his work locally and took immense pride in those shows. But he also was not unaware of art outside the confines of his farm: he assiduously studied a book on Picasso that was given to him.

As looking at the book makes quickly clear, Castle developed an impressive mastery of his technique and materials, almost carving his art out of the very stuff of life that surrounded him. He would draw on the back of cardboard boxes, envelopes, and milk cartons, seemingly choosing them as much for their unique surfaces as for their ready availability. He made his own ink, a combination of soot from the fire place and saliva. The colors that appear in his work—stunningly beautiful blues and pinks—are believed to have come from dyes that he extracted with water from pulped mail.

Castle’s subject matter was diverse and brought about by exploring what he clearly believed were problems and goals involved in his practice. He trained himself in perspective and was able to depict landscapes of the surrounding farmland in considerable detail. But he did not seem to view literal, illusionistic reproduction to be an end in itself. Some landscapes are blocky and childlike, but this seems to be done intentionally to emphasize graphic power rather than being the simple result of inability, and some contain sfumato-use of dye to create atmospheres that verge on Color Field painting. Though illiterate, he was fascinated with the graphics of letters, numbers, and advertisements, and the result are works that call to mind Jasper Johns. In addition to his drawings, Castle also built beautiful “sculptural” works—farm animals, shirts, and people built out of cardboard, paper, and twine.

There are two particularly haunting drawings towards the end of the book. In both a stooped figure in the foreground—Castle himself—has his back to the viewer. He is dwarfed by the massive barn that he stands in and he is looking at his own drawings on the walls. He’s taking in his life’s work. Castle developed a hunch from slaving over his desk for years. But it also gives the impression of a bow, a sign of obeisance to the scale of his own project, which consisted of hundreds and hundreds of drawings that he packed away in bundles. There’s something incredibly touching about these drawings, and they somehow serve to sum up the ineffable force that drove Castle to make his work.

If you ever feel cynical about or at a hopelessly intellectual remove from art, just open Show and Store. Far from being a collection of curios, Castle’s work can help us to shrug off the chains of a vulgar sociology that would reduce art either to agitprop or to decoration and status symbol for the rich and elegant. The lesson should not be that authentic art requires “outsider” status or purity of heart, but that we really understand much less about art and the creative urge than theory would have us believe. Castle didn’t require all the “networks of exchange,” he didn’t need to possess “cultural capital,” or be a part of one of the “legitimating institutions” of the art world in order to make art. Show and Store reminds us that art is probably a much stranger and bigger thing than we have grown accustomed to suppose.

The essays are pretty forgettable, but this is a great book. Buy, borrow, or steal if necessary.


John Ganz


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2011

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