Review: James Castle’s drawings were made of soot and spit
James Castle was obsessed with drawing. He is said to have painted at least one picture every day, and often many more, which added to a collection of thousands when the self-taught artist died in 1977 at the age of 78.
Most are very small, only several inches to the side. And the method he uses most often is unlike any other. On found scraps of paper and cardboard—flat cigarette packets, file cards, envelopes, matchboxes and the like—Castle used sharp little sticks and cotton swabs to paint with the black soot scraped from the wood stove and mixed with the spit. The resulting appearance was strangely soft yet dense, full of visual texture, the paper beneath often assuming a spongy glow.
Once a spam tag appears, it cannot be undone, so it is left alone, or merged into more tags, if it needs fixing. Castle is additive, not subtractive. The heaviness is evident in the photos of the fields around the farm he lived on for a while in rural Idaho, or the unoccupied rooms of the family home outside Boise where he moved when he was in his twenties. (He never left Idaho.) The modest scale of the drawings, in which any dimension over 10 inches is rare, while three or six inches is common, generates a concentrated intensity.
At the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, a modest collection of 86 drawings (12 of which are double-sided paper), two sketchbooks, and three doll-like cardboard structures wrapped in paper and string, is a good introduction to Castle’s curiously curious body. a job. The “Private World of James Castle” exhibition, which will not travel, was organized by Museum Director Larry J. Feinberg, who will retire in October after 15 years in office.
What soon became apparent was how crucial an element of Kassel’s paintings was ornament. The landscape’s fenced path features a rhythmic line of fence posts and telephone poles that recede into deep space. The beekeeper’s boxes are stacked in the field to impossible heights, the towers seven or eight boxes high, like a farmer’s version of Brancusi’s “Endless Column” or the modern city skyline. The wooden walls of the large chicken coop that served as Castle’s makeshift studio for a while merge with the wood floors and paneled furniture, creating a linear environment of lines. Floral wallpaper ascends to the bedroom ceiling, replaced by a splash of polka dots, and falls to the floor, becoming patterned.
In one striking work, the attic relief is a series of vertical black rectangles lined up one after the other on a gray ground. The drawing, almost abstract, of the whole world looks like a mid-sixties post-minimalist show by Eva Hesse.
Pattern is repetition. Repetition is a ritual. Castle painting is a kind of secular daily habits. As with any ritual, it affirms His presence in the world, creates a place to be, opens a space for reflection and celebrates His own engagement.
Castle was born in the little mountain village of Garden Valley—and I mean a small number, maybe 25 people—about 50 miles north of Boise, in 1899. He was terribly deaf. As a child, he spent about five years at the Gooding School for the Deaf and Blind, but there is no evidence that he learned to read, write, speak, or use traditional sign language. He thought of his drawings as his own invention of sign language, a way to visually express his experience.
The school seems to be where he started painting, though nothing seems to be left of him from that time. His family was supportive of him, and he continued to do so when he returned home. Painting remained a private occupation for the next four decades, when Castle began holding a few exhibitions at schools and art centers in the Pacific Northwest. By the time of his death, the art of untrained artists had gained a wide cultural reputation, and his drawings began to be exhibited in larger venues.
Since 2000, his work has been seen everywhere, from the Center for Painting in New York to the Musée National Centrale de Arte in Madrid. A full retrospective was assembled by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2009, and features over 300 models; I traveled to Chicago and Berkeley.
The Santa Barbara show is the first of its kind in Southern California, and for it, Feinberg took a focused approach. Although Castle made works in color, using a variety of materials that included wash-blu dye, watercolors, crayons, and even colored ink spilled from magazine pages, it was mostly soot and black spit. (The museum uses the word “wash” instead of saliva as a description.) His subjects also included typography, calendars, animals, product branding, comics – “Henry”, the bald, mute boy drawn by Carl Thomas Anderson beginning in 1932, was a (perhaps overtly) favorite – and more; But local landscapes and interiors dominate here.
None of the works are dated, so no definite chronology can be made. Castle has been known to work from memory as well, so linking the stacked beekeeper’s boxes in a farmhouse scene or extravagantly wallpapered bedroom to a specific time and place of residence doesn’t quite work. (Castle James: The Palace of Memory, a 2021 book by critic John Beardsley, identifies memorabilia iteratively.) The exact sequence of the drawings over the course of 60 years or so will probably never be revealed, and based on the selection here, it may never be. It matters a lot. There are no noticeable drastic changes in style or subject matter. The ritual continues.
Some drawings—particularly room areas in home interiors, which can be quite intricate—may be more intricately executed than others, indicating an evolution of skill over time. But it is rarely possible to know for sure. More important is the recurring emphasis on ornament.
Like the highly successful early 20th-century Los Angeles landscape painter Granville Redmond, who was also deaf, it is sometimes claimed that Castle compensated for his hearing loss by forcefully increasing his visual acuity. Feinberg rightly puts this misinterpretation aside. Art is not automatic. Castle painted well because he was a gifted artist, not because he was making up for his physical handicap.
Yet the memory seems extraordinarily resonant in relation to the artist’s favorite material. Soot from a wood-burning stove is a residue. Like a memory, it is what remains after the fire has been put out. In their ritual performance, so are Castle’s resolute drawings.
The Private World of James Castle
where: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State Street, Santa Barbara
when: Tue – Sun 11am – 5pm, Thurs 11am – 8pm. Closed on Mondays. Until September 17th.
information: www.sbma.net, (805) 963-4364