James Castle

Lawrence Markey Gallery, San Antonio

Through January 28
by Wendy Atwell

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      James Castle
      Courtesy of Lawrence Markey, San Antonio

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      James Castle
      BOOKS (exhibition view)

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      A media-saturated commercial culture refines images to a polished transparency, whereas art’s opacity thwarts this seeming clarity, questioning what is taken for granted and what goes unseen and unexamined. The small, delicate books by James Castle on view at Lawrence Markey doubly perform this provocation. The sense of distance and removal that pervades Castle’s art exists not only because the work is exhibited in glass vitrines, but also because the books, made from combinations of letters, numbers, portraits and sketches, speak Castle’s personal language.

      Castle, who was born deaf, remained mute and communicated via the art he created. A self-taught, prolific artist, Castle (1899-1977) produced undated handbound books, drawings, collages and constructions throughout his life. Castle chose stove soot mixed with saliva to draw on his books and used a hand-sharpened stick. The found and discarded objects he used to create books, collages and paper dolls were garnered from his parents who were postmasters in rural Idaho. The bricolage of material used by Castle includes soap labels, unfolded matchbooks, used envelopes, bills of sale, comics and other available detritus. This jumble of materials is also reflected in his lettering, a variety of very thoughtfully created fonts, as well as some cryptic lettering with Greek-looking origins.

      The careworn edges of these aged, hand-stitched books reveal their handmade origin. Some books are tiny, the color worn off the covers, such as the cover of Untitled (Red Book), which attests to its usefulness to the artist, who was known to frequently carry his books around with him and page through them. The 96 pages in this book include collaged images, found text and portraits. Though rudimentary, the lines drawn for eyes, noses and mouths on Castle’s figures are nevertheless hauntingly charismatic. Some figures remain featureless and ghostly; everywhere Castle’s shading performs a daunting play of light and shadow.

      The twenty small books on display are carefully propped open to a particular page or closed to show their covers, beckoning the viewer to do the impossible—turn the pages. A catalog accompanies the exhibition with an essay by Bob Nickas, which allows the viewer this indulgence from a distance once removed. This furthers the sense of detachment which is felt everywhere in Castle’s work, most poignantly because it seems to mirror the artist’s own aloofness.

      Though Castle’s visual repertoire isn’t totally inaccessible, it doesn’t allow the viewer to construct a traditional narrative. Untitled (Calendar Castle Jim) is a calendar of six months with drawn numbers that, on some months, count up to 35 days. In Untitled (Three Figures), wavy lines flow horizontally across the pages, miming rows of text, as void of narrative meaning to the viewer as real text must have been to Castle.

      Castle’s texts resist meaning. Instead, the way he repeats text, images and numbers produces a empty sensation, like looking into facing mirrors in which one’s image recedes off and way into infinity. Perhaps this is much like the sensation Castle himself must have had. Looking at language from the outside, he was forced instead to create his own. No one will ever fully know or understand the system of meaning that Castle fashioned for himself, but what is evident in his extensive oeuvre is the world it makes for itself, so self-referential and striking in its vision and extensiveness.

      Wendy Atwell received her M.A. in Art History and Criticism from The University of Texas at San Antonio.


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