James Castle: Show and Store

© James Castle Collection and archive, courtesy Knoedler & Co

IF THERE WERE A JOB APPLICATION for America’s archetypal “outsider artist,” James Castle could check almost all the appropriate boxes: Deaf, illiterate, untrained, and undiscovered until he reached his fifties, he lived his entire life (he died in 1977) on a farm in Idaho. There he employed ink made from spit and soot to draw on discarded packages, as well as bits of string to fashion cardboard constructions. His use of cast-off materials might have been inspired by Dadaist art if Castle had known about Marcel Duchamp, or really about anything beyond his immediate surroundings. As it happens, his art—produced over more than six decades—communes with many of the twentieth century’s most salient aesthetic trends, even as it seems to have been very much a private means of understanding his home and family. Hundreds of drawings and constructions depict rooms, chairs, tables, doorways, clothes: quotidian stuff rendered with an exacting, empathetic eye. Castle’s visual concentration—his images candidly manifest the labor of their making—imbues mere equipment with human vibrancy. Scrutinized in isolation, a stove or a doorknob becomes more than a specimen of what’s seen; they’re objective correlatives of the artist’s mental atmosphere: images as a kind of testament. Castle applied his ashy paste with a stick to create unsettling farmhouse interiors. Though they surely register as grim domains, all gridded lines and angles, closer inspection yields evidence of family portraits, dolls, piano sheet music—the domestic accoutrements of that once-idealized rural American home. The construction above may be one of Castle’s many variations on a jacket or suit of clothes, the tie enlarged, the collar folded in. But even if not, the dimensional layering of cardboard patches, the crosshatched coloring, and the string assembly all convey the artist’s sense of just how alive the inanimate can be. Blue coat or just something blue, Castle reveals how the world is forever working, forever in motion.