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Monday, March 12, 2012

James Castle

James Castle amid his own little art world.
The longer I write the more difficult it becomes to dig up stuff on artists we all know and love that hasn't already been hashed and rehashed a couple dozen times at least. So, I look toward some of the less well known painters from the annuls of art history. I've been accused a few times of deliberately digging up artists no one has ever heard of just for the perversity of it. Well, if I'm going to be accused of such a grievous sin, I might as well accede to that which I've been accused. Unless you stumbled into a little-known gallery on a little-known street in New York City, about twelve years ago, you've probably never heard of James Castle. The gallery was the Drawing Room (now called the Drawing Center) on Wooster Street. And, the artist was from perhaps the most unlikely art area in the whole country--Idaho.

His parents' store
Well, maybe it's time someone wrote about an Idaho artist. James Castle was born in 1899. That's about all that can be said of him that is in any way ordinary, and even at that it must be added that he was born deaf. Given the time and place, he was twelve before anyone made a move to try to in any way mitigate his handicap; and by that time it was too late. When his parents tried to send him to a school for the deaf, he would have none of it. He never learned to read or write, or even speak intelligibly. About his only means of communication was through his drawing. But he did draw and he drew well. Though completely self-taught, there is little that is crude or naive about his work. He drew only that which he knew and saw, and with the same independent spirit that bespoke his other dealings with the rest of the world.

Perhaps James Castle's stork delivered the mail
along with babies.
Castle's parents encouraged him. They bought him pencils, paper, crayons, charcoal, watercolor, but for the most part he cared little for such civilized tools. He preferred his own, sharpened sticks, an ink he made of soot from wood and oil burning stoves mixed with his own spit. For color he preferred tissue paper, made into a spitty pulp and applied with his fingers to cardboard, along with found materials such as string, and sometimes pictures from mail order catalogs. His parents ran a combination dry goods store and post office so there was never a shortage of refuse to fuel his creative binges. His subject matter revolved around his own little world, accurate drawings of interiors, his home, the store, all with a natural feel for one-point perspective, color, composition, and detail. Each work was part art and part historic documentation of a very solitary life lived in the small town of Star, Idaho (a suburb of Boise). When James Castle died in 1977, he had a style and substance to his work, and a technique that was peculiarly all his own. It was an art of which he was the only practitioner. Major retrospectives of his work have occurred at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2008-09 and Madrid's Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in 2011. His work can also be seen in more than a dozen major museums in the U.S.
Home life drawn with a sharpened stick, soot, and spit on what appears to be a
flattened box.

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