James Castle (1899 – 1977) was a self-taught artist who created drawings, constructions, and handmade books throughout his life. Born profoundly deaf, he did not learn to communicate in conventional ways, and had little education and no formal artistic training. Yet he produced diverse creative genres of extraordinary artwork for nearly 70 years. He solely used his own materials for his drawings – the “ink” he made himself mixing stove soot with saliva, and applied it with sharpened sticks and cotton wads. Using his tactile senses toward his own materials, his drawings embrace richly-nuanced and varying textures and tones – subtle, blunt, sharp, fluid and crisp, depicting farmscapes, interiors, figures or still lifes observed in his surroundings in rural Idaho. These drawings look as if they were faded photographs, suggesting nostalgia and distance memories. Some of them convey penetrating impressions of landscapes and farmscapes of the American Northwest in the first half of the 20th century, while, as Joseph Grigely, an artist and critical theorist who became deaf at the age of 10, remarks, “present(ing) us with fragile moments of human existence, a narrative compendium of daily like magnified and multiplied by decades of nuanced variations of infinite experience (…)” (1)
Castle made collages and constructed works such as coats, people and animals, using discarded food containers, product packaging, empty matchboxes, old wrapping paper and letters accessible to him from the family-run post office and general store
in Garden Valley. These constructions are highly unique and some are surrealistic. In her review for New York Times in 2009, art critic Roberta Smith wrote: “in his understanding of structure, moving parts and the abbreviation of familiar forms, Castle used cardboard as brilliantly as Alexander Calder used wire, but with more corners”(2). Castle not only described the subjects with narratives and perspectives, he seemed to deconstruct the images, rebuilding them in his own way, sometimes in abstraction. Appropriation of images from popular literature and mass-produced packaging can be recognized in some works, and it is tempting to seek underlying connections between Castle’s work and that of his contemporaries in Pop art or avant-garde mainstream art. Yet his persistent search for modes of expression reflects his singular artistic sensibility and completely new and original visual language. Lynne Cooke, a renowned curator and art scholar, remarks as follows:
A seemingly inexhaustible curiosity is frequently singled out as key to Castle’s art making. In place of wonder (…), a sense of curiosity overwhelms spectators who spend any time with his work. Initially intrigued by its heterogeneous richness, or by its technical ingenuity and accomplishment, viewers gradually become aware of the depth and complexity of the intellectual challenges that it offers. Unlike wonder, which typically manifests itself by transfixing, curiosity is a cognitive passion. For those infected by it, “the eye is not satisfied with seeing”.(3)
Encountering Castle’s rich oeuvre provides very special experiences of dialogues and pure joy of imagination.
About the exhibition
Tomio Koyama Gallery is delighted to present James Castle’s first solo exhibition in Japan. Castle did not give titles or dates to his work. This exhibition will feature a group (over 30 pieces) of major drawings – both monochrome and color – and a very important construction piece “Untitled (basket)”.
James Castle was born September 25, 1899, in the small mountain town of Garden Valley, Idaho to Francis J. Castle and Mary Nora Scanlon. The fifth of seven children, Castle was born two months premature. His mother was the local midwife and his father was the postmaster and ran the community post office and general store from the living room of the family home.
Castle was profoundly deaf from birth and did not attend school until he was ten years old, when he was enrolled at the Gooding School for the Deaf and Blind in southeastern Idaho. Castle attended and lived at the school for five years, from 1910-1915.
While at the school, Castle was taught the oral method of communication—sign language was not taught in the public schools at the time—but it is likely he learned sign from the other students who secretly taught each other. Evident in his artwork are various references to specific signs. It is unknown to what extent Castle could read, though his artwork does demonstrate a fascination with written language. Any practical method of communication Castle may have learned at school was lost over the years because it was not practiced at home by his family.
With the exception of his tenure at the Gooding School, Castle resided in only three homes in Idaho: in the small town of Star, and on subsistence farms in Garden Valley and Boise. When Castle’s mother died in the 1930s, his sister Agnes inherited the family farm in Boise where Castle continued to live with his sister, brother-in-law and their four children in the small three-bedroom house.