James Castle, Untitled (matchbox), undated; 24 pages; found paper, soot, string; 7¼ x 5½ inches; courtesy Lawrence Markey, San Antonio
Untitled (P ! D), undated; 86 pages; found paper, soot, string; 10 x 8 inches, courtesy Lawrence Markey, San Antonio
James Castle’s work is an art critic’s Rorschach test: there are so many interpretive possibilities and so few contextual constraints that reviews of his drawings, collages and books often reveal more about the writer than the nominal subject. No artistic or philosophical community surrounded Castle or his work; no interviews or treatises or correspondence exist to reveal his intentions. Yet, with equal levels of passion and proficiency, he embraced approaches that are known—though not by him—as Impressionism, Surrealism, abstraction, pattern making, concrete poetry, grid systems and collage. In his books, a handful of which comprise the exhibition James Castle: Books at Lawrence Markey Gallery, these approaches are combined in ways that are loose and unfettered but remarkably accomplished.
Many have noted Castle’s skill in rendering both architecture and landscape with a precision that never feels mechanical, and even more have pondered his ability to echo his contemporaries in major art centers while knowing nothing of their work, nor they his. What Castle did know was a steady flow of graphic design from the mainstream of American culture (he worked busily in rural Idaho from about 1906 until his death in 1977, and for many years his parents ran a mail room out of their house). Viewing Castle’s books leads one to acknowledge that some of the visual techniques that may have seemed radical in the art world of the early- and mid-twentieth century—combining text, image, pattern, realistic illustration and abstraction, often with comical juxtaposition—would have felt commonplace to someone whose visual literacy consisted of Life magazine, postcards, circulars and other flotsam of printed culture.
Castle’s books present a clear case that he was working from the assumptions of graphic design. Many of the books include drawings of Castle’s boyhood farm laid out in a magazine format with wavy lines in place of text. They also demonstrate his proficiency for rendering typefaces by hand, which he did throughout the book Untitled (P ! D), filling it with inscrutable combinations of classic and invented letters. Comprehensible words can be plucked from the chaos, and at times repetitive patterns can be discerned, but any attempt to decode Castle’s text only deepens the mystery.
While it is interesting to compare Castle’s work to artists like On Kawara, Robert Gober, Bruce Nauman and Josh Smith, as Bob Nickas does in a smart essay in the exhibition’s beautiful accompanying publication, I find myself wishing for a designer to analyze Castle’s works from within the traditions of graphic design. What if one started with the premise that Castle was not an “artist” but, rather, a visionary “graphic designer” who worked for no clients, used found materials and eschewed mechanical forms of (re)production. The shock of his work is reversed: Why did this designer do so much by hand? Why did he depict so many rural landscapes? Why is it so hard to derive a message from his texts? One of the most beautiful things about Castle’s work is that he asks viewers to reevaluate assumptions not just about artmaking but about the very nature of communication, and the still-too-rigid boundaries within which it is circumscribed.
Ben Judson is a writer and Web developer living in San Antonio. He blogs at Scatteredwork.com/blog.