by Jonathan Goodman
People, Places & Things
NEW YORK STUDIO SCHOOL | JANUARY 29 – MARCH 4, 2018
James Castle was deaf artist who lived much of his life on subsistence farms in rural Idaho and neither pursued nor received recognition for his remarkable art during his lifetime. Now recognized as a master—the subject of major shows at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2008 and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in 2011—Castle made small, intimate works of art composed of soot and spit, materials he turned into agents of prodigious, if deeply personal, achievement. In this small but highly focused show, curated by Karen Wilkin, we can begin to see how Castle made sense of things. The drawings are made on found paper, and all the images are small, less than a foot in any dimension. They lyrically describe life as the artist knew it: interiors of the homes he lived in, simple landscapes with wooden houses, encircled by lawns rendered in green, studies of buildings, articles used in daily life: a coat, a pitcher, a vest. Despite the humility of his subject matter, or perhaps because of it, Castle was able to imbue his art with a poetic insight unmatched for its emotional poignancy and, as well, an accuracy of structure that turned common objects and everyday architecture into visions and sites of genuine beauty. It seems clear that Castle did not set out consciously to do this; it simply happened, being the consequence of a gifted man’s determination to present his vision of the world in a public, but mostly unrecognized fashion.
Castle is an unschooled visionary who persisted in his unreasonable attempt to construct an imagery that would transform the sheer ordinariness of his circumstances into a terrain both rich and strange. Given the limitations of his media, as well as the circumscribed locale within which he lived, it would seem close to impossible for an artist to arise and develop to the point that Castle did. But the creativity of artists often defies their circumstances; in Castle’s case, as he faced the extreme challenge of deafness, his originality starts to seem more than inspired. To be sure, the best way to describe the drawings, both individually and in light of their cumulative effect, is to call them unprepossessing or humble. We do not associate humility with prominent merit, although it does exist—the microstories of Swiss writer Robert Walser, notable for their low-key but acute social and psychological intelligence are an outstanding example. Although he worked in a different medium, Castle was cut from similar cloth, being someone whose visual intelligence transformed the constraints of deafness and, equally difficult, the limitations of a hard-scrabble rural life. His art silently underscores private experience without imbuing it with the distortions of rhetoric.
The drawings themselves are compelling for their immediacy of report. Untitled (Five Figures)—none of the drawings have known dates—consists of four figures, that rise in height from left to right. To the right of the group is a figure, clearly a girl, who wears a striped dress. Despite the extremely limited size of the found paper on which Castle produced this drawing, using watercolor and ink, the feeling of it is large and expansive. Each of the four persons depicted has short hair, so one would assume that they are male. But the identical shape of the squared heads and the tunic-like coat they wear leads in the direction of no particular gender. In the back, on the right side, we can see a lighter background in contrast to the darkish one used to render the rest of the backdrop; it is literally a rift of light in an otherwise relentless somber tableau. While this drawing and others consistently share elements of formal presentation and a simpleness of subject matter that would relate them to outsider art, there is at the same time, a silent gravitas and pathos of principle that transforms their tentative manner into statements larger than their outward appearance.
We can see this happen as well in Untitled (Peggy and James). The image is striking: a tall woman with a square head, a white dress whose bottom half is gridded with straight lines, and a grimacing expression stands next to a bizarre portrait of a shorter man wearing a flat, black hat with a brim and an eccentric great coat punctuated with gray ovals. He too presents a wrenched countenance to the public. The background consists of squared panels that offer a neutral value counteracting the emotional impact of the faces, which are close to disturbing.
If this art is “primitive,” to use the prejudicial term, it is only so in light of our own biased assumptions regarding what art is—or is supposed to be—and our wish to maintain hierarchies whose meaningfulness has broken down. We are so determined to democratize culture we forget that, over time, a critical perception of a work’s success establishes itself in terms that avoid the social categories imposed on them. Castle’s art is masterful, yet both his context and the drawings themselves are missing in any assertion of class or background—or any demonstration of a transcendent ego. Contemporary art can learn from this. But Castle’s position cannot be said to belong to re-arrange the narrative of art history. We need to find a new language with which to characterize the remarkable success of Castle’s production.
And, finally, to give Castle’s very private art a public aura and historical prominence fails to empathize with the modest circumstances of its making. Castle was a wonderfully gifted artist at least in part because he was not a professional. In his case, though, this does not mean he lacked ambition or, in his own fashion, did not face the art issues of his time. Untitled (Monument Circle) is a complicated, highly particular drawing of a square populated with tall office buildings that fill the middle half of the small piece of paper on which the drawing occurs. The structures are rendered with soot; but much of the composition consists of the off-white color of the untouched paper. Surely the architectonic quality of the work, at once measured and expansive, underscores Castle’s desire to take on an ambitious project. Such ambition is found again and again in his art. His works combines the artlessness of someone who was never trained with a a nearly mystical regard for structure and the unspoken presence that can occur in buildings and private people. But the career was played out in total isolation, Castle’s achievement occurs outside the pale of our historical expectations and awareness. It is what it is: a monument to a persistent vision developed alone
JONATHAN GOODMAN is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.