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James Castle: A Retrospective

February 3, 2010 - April 25, 2010

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 x 5 1/8 in.; The James Castle Collection, L.P. Courtesy of J. Crist Gallery, Boise, Idaho.

James Castle (1899–1977) was a prodigious artist who, without formal training, created a remarkable and vast body of work over the course of his life in rural Idaho. He was born profoundly deaf, and although as a child he attended the Idaho School for the Deaf and Blind, Castle did not learn to read, write, speak, sign, or lip-read, perhaps by choice. Other than his five years away at school, Castle lived within the circle of his immediate family, making artworks based on the scenes, surroundings, and imaginings of his daily life.

He was a gifted draftsman, making sensitive and spatially complex black-and-white drawings with tools of his own invention—sharpened sticks dabbed in a graphite-like paste of soot and saliva. He also painted lyrical color washes using dampened colored papers (wrapping paper was a favorite source); produced paper constructions, largely representing animals and figures; and crafted countless handmade books from found materials. The exact number of artworks made by Castle is unknown, as is the precise chronology of his work. He rarely signed his works, and never dated or titled them (descriptive titles were assigned later).

Castle’s imagery derives from his immediate surroundings. In many works we can identify the landscape and architecture of the family’s Garden Valley homestead, where they lived and ran the local post office and a small general store from 1898 to 1923. By the early 1930s they settled on a farm on the outskirts of Boise, and James lived there with various family members for the remainder of his life. Aspects of all the Castle homes, as well as his school—particular rooms and views—appear and reappear in a variety of contexts and forms throughout his work. The drawings of place are often set in deep receding space, and are striking in their spatial skill and complexity. Interiors are vibrant, visually dense environments, built up from layered contrasts of light and shade and opposing surface patterns. Castle’s scenes suggest direct observation of spaces, objects, and printed matter. They also suggest that the artist had an acute memory and an animated imagination, and that he did not adhere to firm distinctions between those temporal states. For example, an oft-repeated view of the family farmscape might suddenly include a distant line of oversized totems bearing some resemblance to headstones, or a huge tree with a tunnel carved through its base (probably inspired by a postcard of a giant redwood).

Castle’s fascination with images from popular culture—postcards, magazines, and advertising flyers—certainly was fueled during the Garden Valley years when every sort of mailer and printed paper passed through the family post office and general store. Packaging, calendars, and comics all caught his eye. He would copy images precisely and then use them in part and whole in various other drawings and handmade books. Castle made vast numbers of books, containing images as well as text, largely using papers and materials collected from the family business. The books frequently resemble picture albums, filled with rows of Castle’s own thumbnail drawings of buildings and stylized figures. Some of the images recur, but in differing sequences, as if Castle were exploring structural variations.

Even though Castle did not read, he made determined placements of single words and text fragments in various works. We can easily imagine that he recognized what the words “place,” “house,” and “Castle” represented. Castle’s texts, made up of alphabet clusters as well as squiggly lines of imagined writing, appear predominantly in his books rather than his other works. It seems that Castle may have understood the functional place of text, but was more interested in the visual structure of particular letters of the alphabet, in signs and symbols. He seemed to conflate these elements into a rhythm of repetitions and variations, as if structuring his own image-text narratives. His attention to pattern and visual cadence is consistent across his image-based as well as his text-based works.

Ultimately, our attempts to “know” and define Castle’s intentions are conjecture and speculation. There is no primary-source commentary or explanation of his work—the work stands as its own explanation. Interestingly, the visual realm that Castle depicted is one without angst, doubt, worry, or irony. The act of making art for Castle was clearly an act of confident pleasure and curiosity, an act in which he immersed his full self-awareness. Castle’s work offers an extraordinary durational self-portrait, a portrayal that unfolds over time and, in essence, writes its own narrative.

Lucinda Barnes
Chief Curator and Director of Programs and Collections

James Castle: A Retrospective was organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and made possible by The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, through the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative. Additional funding was provided by the National Endowment for the Arts as part of American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius.
The Berkeley presentation has been made possible in part by the Karen Lennox Gallery, the Fields Family Foundation, Luba Mosionzhnik, Betsy Aubrey and E. Steve Lichtenberg, M.D., and anonymous donors, and by the generous support of the BAM/PFA Trustees.