James Castle at the Art Institute of Chicago

Organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and now on display at the Art Institute, here in Chicago, James Castle: A Retrospective is an exhibit that would be a shame to miss.  Lynne Cook of Artforum rated this show one of the best of 2009. The show closes on January 3rd so don’t waste any time.

Castle was born in Garden Valley, Idaho in 1899, deaf and mute.  Even though he went to a school for the blind and deaf, he never even learned sign language and remained illiterate.  He was a self-taught artist whose only real communication and form of self-expression was through this art.  He made a seemingly endless collection of drawings made from only his spit and charcoal as well as small books and paper and string constructed sculptures.

The drawings have a certain density and surprisingly precise yet imperfect perspective skills. Castle’s work is centered on observations of home: drawing over the pages of his school books, drawings and paper sculpture of different porch doors, and studies of his home where his parents ran a local post office.  It was in this post office that Castle took inspiration from newspapers, mail-order catalogs, and magazines.  Although he never left Idaho and had almost no communication tools, he was able to interact with the outside world through his reappropriation of these commercial images.

As museum-goers wandered through the many rooms housing this huge retrospective, I caught the words, “Child-like.”  Castle’s work could be considered “Outsider” or “Folk” but these terms have become problematic and condescending precisely because of descriptions like the ones overheard in the museum.  It is impossible to create from within a vacuum.  Perhaps Castle was never professionally trained or wouldn’t be able to name artistic influences but he created for himself as a way to express and communicate.  Leave the labels behind and listen to what Castle has to say.

Written by Whitney Stoepel for Gapers Block, 2009

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