Soot, Spit and Paper: James Castle’s Changing Worlds

A look at James Castle’s work means entering his secret world. Often the artist collected his works and then hid them in the walls of houses and outbuildings or even buried them in pits.

This habit of hiding is in tension with the exquisite painting on the second floor of the David Zwerner Gallery in Manhattan, which shows a bare wood panel attic crowded with nearly 100 of his artworks, including books, and dozens of sculptural figures leaning against the wall or standing on Shelves, and about 20 drawings hang on the wall. Is this crowded but intuitively organized display of his work in a single drawing inconsistent with his solitary practice? Perhaps the drawing was a catalog of works that were to be stored, so that later he could remember what was no longer at hand. While Castle’s intentions are indistinguishable, the fun comes in baffling bonds in his vast and often mysterious visual world.

Castle was born deaf and considered “uneducable” as a teenager at the deaf school he attended for five years. Born in 1899 in rural Idaho, he apparently never learned to read and write, at least in the traditional sense. From a young age, until his death in 1977, he devoted his life to making art among farms and ranches in and near Boise. The main medium he used all along was soot from the family hearth mixed with his own saliva on reused items he had salvaged from his family home, which became a post office and general store.

While his work is not formally trained, his works may have predetermined, in miraculous ways, the major artistic movements, including Pop Art, Concrete Poetry, and the Italianate movement poor art (Literally “poor art” that uses cheap, readily available materials). may have Because it is difficult to date his work with any accuracy, as he has been known to stick to material for decades (an advertisement from 1940, for example, can be used in 1970 to make a drawing).

Although exhibited regionally and on the West Coast in the last decades of his life, Castle worked largely without contact with the art world. His breakthrough retrospective was posthumously in 2008 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. However, it is somewhat inconsistent to see the drawings and mediocre objects now displayed in the Zwerner Gallery, organized in collaboration with the James Castle Collection and Archives, from a collection acquired in 2012 by the famous collector William Louis-Dreyfus. The limited collection of objects on display is like staring into a keyhole, although only a small portion of the Castle world appears.

Missing here are his painted versions of product packaging, his handmade books and calendar-like constructions, as well as his experiments with hand-drawn typography. The wide selection on offer – drawings and sculptural objects made of cardboard, paper and thread, as well as less dyed works – still allows for the look and playful comparison.

In the first three rooms here, all the drawings on the surrounding walls feature landscapes or farm views. In both his interiors and exteriors, Castle is an expert in spatial perspective: the same scenes are approached from different perspectives, creating a dialogue between the works as well as a rich sense of three-dimensional space.

The realism of this landscape, in its confident lines depicting farm buildings, tents, fences, power cords, and tree lines, is unsettled by seemingly invented and fanciful sculptural elements. One structure appears in various forms, such as a modified cross with several cross bars stacked from bottom to top. (John Beardsley in his big 2021 book “James Castle: Memory Palace” linked this shape to a common barn ladder design using a single central column.) At other times, the same shape appears as a giant cartoon cactus with symmetrical arms. It climbs on both sides, echoing Franz West’s enigmatic lively sculptures.

The blending of real and imaginary feels starkly contemporary and conceptually rich. Turning real farm scenes into imagined sculpture gardens, Castle graphics anticipate augmented reality applications where a VR headset or phone camera detects Pokemon in a public park or a KAWS sculpture hovering over Times Square. Perhaps the painted carvings of the castle are themselves a reaction to technological change, repeating in memory and feeling how the landscape was once changed by the installation of power lines and towers.

Besides gradations of paper from off-white to dull yellow and cardboard, I never thought there was so much to see in Castle’s use of color. The series of painted works here, depicting mostly houses, are uncharacteristically mysterious, and may have been the product of his later years when his eyesight, dexterity, and memory were waning. But the presence of these made me pay attention to the color in his cardboard, mostly figurative constructions, which his family referred to as his “friends.”

The combination of pinks on the untitled flamingo, speckled with yellow on the head and neck, and the flair for lavender with chestnut on the body fascinated me. Irregular Castle stitch contrasts with the arranged dark blue lines of the semi-abstract ‘bowl’ where hand-stitching in a narrow yellow stripe, white thread, and blue thread on top of it plays another form of graphic. The star of the show might be the nearly three-foot-tall paper doll in a red and white striped dress, and black shoes to match her hat ensemble. There is a lively and playful feel to this stuff, which makes me imagine the castle’s connection to it, and how it might have brought jolts of life and color to its monochromatic but awe-inspiring worlds.

James Castle

Until February 12th at David Zwerner Gallery, 537 West 20th Street, Manhattan. 212-517-8677;

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