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Native Son

Two shows, two views of James Castle

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Who would have guessed that a deaf, unschooled and artistically untrained man from the tiny rural community of Garden Valley would be the one to put Idaho on the international art map, making an impact seemingly out of proportion to his means and circumstances? Such is the stature of James Castle's work today as his simple story is becoming well-known among collectors and institutions around the country and overseas. Two concurrent shows now on view in Boise offer differing perspectives on this native son.

There are a number of reasons for Castle's increasing stature, including the continuing professional commitment to preserve his legacy on the part of Curator of Art Sandy Harthorn and the Boise Art Museum, Jacqueline Crist and her staff at J. Crist Gallery, and the Castle family itself, all of whom have joined forces to present an important and moving exhibition of 130 Castle works, on view now at BAM through June 5. But in the end, it is the remarkable sophistication, tenderness and wit of Castle's art that accounts for its appeal and growing reputation.

Of course, these days you can't have a success story without controversy. The swirl of uncorroborated rumor and innuendo concerning those associated with the Castle phenomenon has nothing to do with the art itself, but Boise's art scene demonstrates quite a capacity for that sort of thing. We owe Curator Harthorn and her staff a debt of gratitude for considering the art first, and presenting it in an intelligent, provocative manner without gimmicks to obscure the artist's achievements. continued on the next page

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BAM's entire collection of 90 works is on view, plus another 40 works on loan from J. Crist Gallery which represents the Castle estate, and a handful from other private collectors. The museum has been collecting Castle's art since 1963, and has the largest public collection of his work. Consequently, BAM has played a major role in expanding awareness and appreciation of this artist. Whereas throughout the 1960s and '70s only curators, artists and aficionados of folk or "outsider" art purchased the occasionally available Castle piece, today it is a much different story, with his art enjoying a following among the general art-viewing public.

Harthorn has been a student of his art for over 30 years, and is the only Castle expert who has actually had contact with the artist. In the 1970s she began conducting research on Castle for her Masters thesis, and met him at BAM and during visits to the family home. Near the end of Castle's life, Harthorn had the opportunity to observe him at work on several of his "cigarette" books. This and the wealth of information she obtained from the family formed the basis for the major retrospective of more than 200 drawings, constructions and books that Harthorn organized in 1982 at BAM, and several subsequent touring exhibitions that traveled to seven Western states. Her expertise informs the handsome hardcover, full-color catalog to the current show. Funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and several other foundations, the book testifies to the seriousness with which Castle is taken today.

Castle's art fascinates us on many levels, surprising the viewer with its subtleties and innate intelligence, giving much to see and consider and get carried away in our efforts of interpretation. Because making two- and three-dimensional images was Castle's means of interacting with, and giving meaning to, his immediate environment, his is an art of discovery, both for himself and for us. Unable to speak for himself, art was Castle's only way of communicating his individuality, and, inevitably, we encounter ambiguities and questions that will never be resolved. Sorting through the autobiographical references, recurring motifs, chronological uncertainties and formal games is important on one level, but we need to just enjoy this art, too, recognizing the untainted honesty and a sheer pleasure inherent in it.

Given the amount of work in the show, it is perhaps best to approach it in general ways that underscore the uniqueness of Castle's art. First of all, to what extent can Castle be classified an outsider artist? As Harthorn states in her catalog essay, artists receive this designation for being self-taught, often living in a rural area while creating work characterized by a naïve and/or idiosyncratic style. Castle definitely meets some of this criteria-he wasn't academically trained, he lived on a farm, used soot and saliva for ink and homemade utensils/found materials instead of normal art supplies and was deaf and illiterate. But the usefulness of the outsider artist label ends here for Castle, as this exhibit makes abundantly clear.

First and foremost, there is little that is naïve about Castle's art beyond his stylized figurations called "friends": short, flatly rendered abstractions that have the look of children in Halloween costumes. Visually and artistically he was remarkably literate, grasping perspective, foreshortening, spatial relationships, graphic elements, volume and weight, light and shadow. Then there is his use of negative space, investigations of deconstructed form, and development of an abstract art based on geometric patterning and formal reduction. He frequently uses the device of camera cropping a scene, as if looking through a lens. And he worked in a variety of art forms-all placing him beyond the outsider canon.

Numerous pieces in the show illustrate this point. Consider "Untitled (self-portrait by fence)." (All Castle's works are untitled for the simple reason he never titled them; the parenthetic addition is used for referencing and cataloging purposes.) The fact he drew it from a photograph taken of him at age 8 is itself significant. Outsider artists, too obsessed with their own vision, have never been known to work from photographic sources. Also, his realistic treatment of the subject is impressive, right down to the body language of the boy, the jaunty tilt of his hat, and the detailed rendering of the setting.

In two Edward Hopper-esque works, Castle presents interior scenes in which our view is from behind a figure with its back to us, again a trait one will not find in outsider art. In both "Untitled (man in green jacket)" and "Untitled (man, woman facing each other in a room)" we are active observers of a scene, looking over the shoulder of someone, in effect placing us in their space. That such devices may have been inspired by magazine ads or television only reinforces the sense Castle stands apart from the "outsider" camp.

Castle's use of tonality, light and shadow is head and shoulders above your typical outsider artist. Upon entering the first gallery of the exhibit, the subtle tonalities in many of the works are immediately striking, achieving a richness of surface unattainable with ordinary pencil (probably why he preferred his soot/saliva ink). His "Untitled (woodstove)," with its warm glow and smudged shadows, is a real beauty, as is the bold "Untitled (ironing board)" with its strong, graphic elements and sophisticated gray tones. There is a piece with a bright streak of light cutting across the ceiling and wall of a dark interior from a door ajar on the left-quite startling in its effect. These and other drawings exemplify how smart Castle was about composition. Just block from your vision some tiny part of a piece-like the dot of light in "Untitled (room with shaft of light)"-and see how it detracts from the entire work. Nothing is superfluous or unintended in a Castle design.

The museum has placed side-by-side works of varying mediums which share certain formal characteristics and motifs, demonstrating the interconnectedness of Castle's subjects, and in some cases creating a mini-series of images. For example, Castle's conceptual sophistication in capturing multiple perspectives of a single room is emphasized in this way. Or a Castle construction of a kitchen hutch made of found paper, string, soot and pigment is flanked by drawings with the same structure dominating a drawing of the post-office space in his home, and a color drawing of the kitchen.

In a vertical three-piece "dream house" series, Castle begins with a bright red house situated on the horizon line between green grass and blue sky, then literally melts down the structure to a smaller size, the red running like a fire line along the horizon. In the final piece, it coagulates into a red stain. This little experiment in formal reduction continues further down the wall in a separate piece with the same colors, the broader blue and green areas separated by a band of red for a Rothko-like abstraction.

Castle was much more interested in manmade forms than natural ones. It is fascinating to observe Castle's proclivity for deconstructing architectonic forms, including houses, barns, (even figures) and reproducing favorite structural fragments in a variety of unlikely settings. The tall "totems" which appear inexplicably in outdoor settings are often structural uprights with part of the walls or shelving they support, as if surgically removed from his interiors. BAM exhibits together drawings of outdoor farmyard scenes and barn studies with abstract constructions that look like intersections of post-and-rail fencing but also echo the support-and-shelf motif, demonstrating the interchangeability and significance of these parts in Castle's mind.

Probably the most striking example of Castle's deconstructionist obsession is the series of works on his home on Eugene Street in Boise. His drawing of the house intact is followed by other studies in which the structure is sliced up into five individual totemic forms, the tops of which retain the pitch and design of the Eugene Street house roofline. Finally, Castle anthropomorphizes these deconstructed forms into the five children in his family, including himself. As Harthorn points out, the house has been morphed into a strange, interchangeable abstraction.

It is altogether fitting that this project is funded in part by the Andy Warhol Foundation, as I think Warhol himself would have liked Castle's work, especially his figurative constructions, collages and handmade books incorporating commercial logos. Despite the rudimentary materials and his being from a time and place remote for most Americans, Castle's art has a definite contemporary feel. Remarkably, even though he worked in geographical, cultural and physical isolation, his art reveals modernist and post-modernist sensibilities we collectively recognize and respond to.

Due to Castle's access to all sorts of junk mail and his totally non-prejudicial, egalitarian approach to visual sources, it's clear he was something of a proto-Pop artist, anticipating, in his way, the Pop Art movement of the 1960's. Castle's use of commercial illustration, typeface and pictograms, as well as cartoons, is similar to Pop's deadpan appropriation of advertising, trademarks, comic strips and other icons of the mass media. One reason artists like Jasper Johns and institutions like the Museum of Modern Art in New York have purchased Castle's work is that he obviously shared an appreciation for the expressive possibilities of the commonplace with many of his contemporaries in art.

For example, Castle was a contemporary of the German Dada artist Kurt Schwitters whose famous Merz "paintings" were in fact collages using the same type of recycled paper used by Castle, including fragments of printed matter, postmarked envelopes and cigarette packaging. While Schwitters' work had a more urban demeanor, the resemblance between his art and Castle's collages and books is intriguing. This excellent exhibit at BAM helps us see these empathetic connections between Castle and what, unbeknownst to him, was happening aesthetically in the wider world. As a result, we come away with a better understanding of the universality of art and the human spirit.

The exhibit at Boise State's Student Union Building entitled James Castle, Icehouse Unto Early Attic: Books & Art is a much different affair. Curated by Tom Trusky, director of the Hemingway Western Studies Center and a professor of English at Boise State, the show's title reflects its focus on two bodies of Castle works Professor Trusky has named after the locations where they were discovered, i.e., the "Icehouse" and the "Early Attic" books. He also includes works called "Dreamhouse" drawings, which Trusky broadly defines as art made by Castle "in Boise Valley circa 1932-1965."

Strangely, the exhibit is short on actual works of art and long on wall text, displaying photo reproductions, plus a rather hokey, un-Castle-like "theater" for viewing Trusky's video on the artist. Despite the stated theme of the show, it soon becomes apparent the art of James Castle takes a backseat to Trusky's theories regarding details of Castle's life-theories, presented as established fact. There are serious flaws to this presentation, undermining the scholarly intent this self-proclaimed Castle expert aspires to, making it is more about the curator than the artist.

Upon entering the exhibit, we are greeted by a wall documenting Trusky's contention that Castle was born in 1899, not 1900, as if such a finding is crucial to appreciating the art. Across the way is a display giving Castle's biography. This contains several misrepresentations, not the least of which is an insinuation that Castle was a victim, stifled by family and unidentified others who insisted he was deaf since birth, as well as "mute, mentally challenged and/or illiterate." I believe we all recognize Castle's intelligence, but Trusky goes on to insist Castle was not illiterate and in truth had "limited reading and writing abilities" ("limited" left undefined).

To support his thesis, Trusky categorically states contemporary experts "diagnosed" Castle as having been autistic-quite an achievement given the artist has been dead for 27 years and no tests were ever done while he was alive. (Last year, a Salt Lake City reporter talked to an autism expert Trusky consulted who told the reporter "it will never be conclusive since Castle can't be directly diagnosed.") Though Castle learned late in life how to write his name, that does not make him literate. Like much of the material here, it is largely conjecture with little substantive weight to back it up.

I was surprised by some of the liberties Trusky takes with the two main bodies of work he presents. Trusky has deemed the "Icehouse" books and drawings to be "autobiographical" works which his recent book on Castle dates as "circa 1915," but the show dates as "1912-1924." Of course, much of Castle's art is of an autobiographical nature to some extent, but Trusky presumes to read specific meanings into selected works in order to illustrate "chapters" covering Castle's years in Garden Valley. For instance, a drawing of a man in a suit and a television for a head is supposedly the director of the school for the deaf Castle briefly attended, and represents with other works the "Gooding Chapter."

Another figurative work of Castle's is titled by Trusky "The Silent Scream," which he dramatically suggests is a tortured self-portrait with a large circle on the face and no arms, signifying that his family denied him art supplies. Trusky reads all this into the piece, even though many of Castle's drawn and constructed figures throughout his oeuvre do not include arms, and many his faces have abstract shapes on them. Castle did not, could not, title his works, and curators tread lightly when assigning dates. Trusky does not hesitate to do both.

The "Early Attic Books" discovered last year by the owners of the Early Attic antique store in Idaho City receive the same treatment. In his press release for the show, Trusky says these books constitute visual narratives which he has "translated for the first time." One book is declared to be "an opulent and extensive history of [Castle's] sister Emma's wedding," but without corroborating evidence, it is simply another construction of Trusky's making imposed on the imagery.

Technically, the jury is still out on whether the "Early Attic Books" are indeed Castle's. Jacqueline Crist is of the opinion they are not. At his show, Trusky displays a color photo of Sandy Harthorn with a statement underneath that she has "authenticated the Early Attic volumes as works by Castle."

When I contacted Harthorn, she was unhappy, to put it mildly, that Trusky had posted her picture and this statement without her permission. She denies that she ever authenticated the books as done by Castle, or appraised their worth. She says she spent all of 15 minutes with the books when Boise art dealer Randy Brown unexpectedly showed them to her. Harthorn made some comments about their poor condition and questionable quality, but did say her first impression was that they "looked like" Castle's. However, Harthorn states "this was an off-the-record opinion and definitely not an official appraisal."

Later, when Boise Weekly reported (BW, A&E News, June 9, 2004) "the books' authenticity has been confirmed by Castle expert Sandy Harthorn," Harthorn was told by BW it was taken verbatim from a Boise State press release when she called denying making such a claim. Upset, Harthorn confronted Trusky, who apologized, admitted he was "totally responsible for the appraisal," and promised not to repeat the claim again. Nevertheless, Trusky did repeat it in the book he published last year on Castle, stating further that the museum was willing to accept the works as donations, which Harthorn also emphatically denies. When Trusky responded to my e-mailed questions for this article, he wrote "the authenticity of the attic works have been vouched for by Sandy Harthorn." He has also proceeded to value them at $25,000.

I believe these and other aspects of the Boise State show demonstrate a dismaying lack of academic professionalism on Trusky's part. When asked to provide the provenance of the works on exhibit other than the Early Attic books, he stated "six books were gifts to the Idaho Center on the Book from the Castle estate; all the rest are on loan to or gifts to the ICB." None of these other lenders or donators are identified as they normally would be in a public show. I believe it is not good news for the emerging field of Castle studies that the exhibit is booked to travel around the country through 2008.

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