CULTURE & ARTS

Why Outsider Artist James Castle Is So Hard To Categorize

As far as acclaimed artists go, James Castle is somewhat of an anomaly. For one, he was raised on a farm in rural Garden Valley, Idaho and spent most of his adult life in Boise. Furthermore, he was born deaf and never learned sign language. The only way Castle could communicate, from his birth in 1899 until his death in 1977, was through the artwork he created.

man
James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper and color of unknown origin

And yet, Castle doesn't quite fit the mold for what we retroactively refer to as outsider art. As Ken Johnson wrote in The New York Times, his work is "not visionary, paranoid or obsessive," as is emblematic of most outsider artists. "He approached drawing, rather, with an almost scientific attitude." Although it's tempting to turn Castle's hearing disability into a singular tale of isolation and otherworldly genius, this reading is deceptively narrow.

Castle curated and sold his work during his lifetime; he was aware of his role as an artist and was able to support himself financially through his own work. He also was close with his family and even loved to watch television. "He was a regular guy in a lot of ways," Jacqueline Crist, managing partner of the James Castle Collection and Archive, explained in a panel discussion at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. "He found humor. He had compassion… He really was a regular guy who actually, you know, got to make art everyday."

castle
James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper and color of unknown origin

For nearly 70 years, Castle made art from the stuff of everyday life. In ink, he combined soot and saliva. To obtain color, he extracted dyes with water from pulped mail. For his canvases, he used advertisements, envelopes, newspapers, milk cartons, packaging materials and whatever else his family and neighbors would save for him. He'd often incorporate sticks, apricot pits, broken fountain-pen nibs and string into his multimedia works, echoing the hodgepodge techniques of famous contemporaries like Joseph Cornell and Robert Rauschenberg without the art historical knowledge to know so.

Castle's subject matter is as wide ranging as his artistic media. He rendered images of family members, fantastical calendars, pop cultural references, memories from his time at the School for the Deaf and Blind, and flashes of life on the farm. His hand is trusting and accessible, possessing a skilled grasp on the mundane details of reality without any steadfast allegiance to it. When Castle veers toward childlike abstraction, it's not for lack of ability. Rather his sophisticated eye gravitates toward a graphic minimalism that transforms stark details into a somber tableaux.

castle
James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, color of unknown origin

"It's a body of work that, at first blush, might seem a little monotonous, but the more you look at it, the more you realize that it's infinite," commented Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in the same panel discussion. The Lynchian, shadowy visions suggest secrets tucked into the banal details of everyday life, details that, without proper attention, may never be communicated.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C. acquired 54 of Castle's works in 2013. "Untitled: The Art of James Castle" features a selection of the artist's massive collection of works. The exhibition runs until February 1, 2015. A "Conservation of Our Collection: James Castle" Gallery Talk will take place on Wednesday, December 10, 2014 at noon. In the meantime, check out a preview of the stunning exhibition below.

  •  James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, color 
of unknown origin, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 
Gift of the Jam
    James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, color of unknown origin, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James Castle Collection and Archive and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 2013.27.53 Recto and Verso
  •  James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, color of 
unknown origin, wheat paste, and string, Smithsonian 
American Ar
    James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, color of unknown origin, wheat paste, and string, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James Castle Collection and Archive and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 2013.27.10
  •  James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, 
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James 
Castle Collection and
    James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James Castle Collection and Archive and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 2013.27.35
  • James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, string, 
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James 
Castle Collecti
    James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, string, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James Castle Collection and Archive and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 2013.27.51
  • James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, string, and 
wood, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Gift of the James Castle Collec
    James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, string, and wood, Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of the James Castle Collection and Archive and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 2013.27.1
  •  James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, string, 
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James 
Castle Collect
    James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, string, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James Castle Collection and Archive and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 2013.27.52
  •  James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, color 
of unknown origin, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 
Gift of the Jam
    James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, color of unknown origin, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James Castle Collection and Archive and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 2013.27.53 Recto and Verso
  • James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, and 
color of unknown origin, Smithsonian American Art 
Museum, Gift of the
    James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, and color of unknown origin, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James Castle Collection and Archive and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 2013.27.2
  • James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper and soot, 
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James 
Castle Collection an
    James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper and soot, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James Castle Collection and Archive and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 2013.27.6
  •  James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, 
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James 
Castle Collection and
    James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James Castle Collection and Archive and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 2013.27.38 Recto and Verso
  •  James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, 
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James 
Castle Collection and
    James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James Castle Collection and Archive and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 2013.27.38 Recto and Verso
  •  James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper and soot, 
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James 
Castle Collection a
    James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper and soot, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James Castle Collection and Archive and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 2013.27.9
  • James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, 
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James 
Castle Collection and A
    James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James Castle Collection and Archive and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 2013.27.18 Recto and Verso
  • James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, 
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James 
Castle Collection and A
    James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James Castle Collection and Archive and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 2013.27.22 Recto and Verso
  • James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, 
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James 
Castle Collection and A
    James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James Castle Collection and Archive and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 2013.27.22 Recto and Verso
  • James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, 
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James 
Castle Collection and A
    James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James Castle Collection and Archive and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 2013.27.27
  •  James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, 
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James 
Castle Collection and
    James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James Castle Collection and Archive and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 2013.27.34

Outside the Lines" is an ongoing series addressing the prickly genre sometimes referred to as outsider art.

HuffPost

BEFORE YOU GO

  • Giorgos Rigas, First Elementary School, (2007).
oil on linen
24 x 36 inches
Courtesy C. Grimaldis Gallery
    Giorgos Rigas, First Elementary School, (2007). oil on linen 24 x 36 inches Courtesy C. Grimaldis Gallery
  • Henry Darger, Are Seized by Pursueing [sic] Glandelinians.
19 x 48 inches overall (image is detail of one panel)
carbon trans
    Henry Darger, Are Seized by Pursueing [sic] Glandelinians. 19 x 48 inches overall (image is detail of one panel) carbon transfer and watercolor on paper Courtesy Carl Hammer Gallery
  • Melvin Edward Nelson, Planetscape #2, n/d.
mineral pigment, watercolor on paper
18 x 24 inches / 45.7 x 61 cm
Courtesy Cavin-
    Melvin Edward Nelson, Planetscape #2, n/d. mineral pigment, watercolor on paper 18 x 24 inches / 45.7 x 61 cm Courtesy Cavin-Morris Gallery
  • Andrew Frieder, Untitled (Fish Man), 2007.
mixed media on paper
16 x 20 inches
Courtesy The Good Luck Gallery
    Andrew Frieder, Untitled (Fish Man), 2007. mixed media on paper 16 x 20 inches Courtesy The Good Luck Gallery
  • Alcides Pereira dos Santos, A boat cabin, 1995.
Acrylic on canvas
28.74 x 85.04 inches
Courtesy Galeria Estação
    Alcides Pereira dos Santos, A boat cabin, 1995. Acrylic on canvas 28.74 x 85.04 inches Courtesy Galeria Estação
  • Mary Whitfield, Fleeing Darfur, n/d.
watercolor and gouache on Arches paper
16 x 15 inches
Courtesy Galerie Bonheur
    Mary Whitfield, Fleeing Darfur, n/d. watercolor and gouache on Arches paper 16 x 15 inches Courtesy Galerie Bonheur
  • Manuel Bonifacio, Untitled, c.2013.
crayon on paper
12 x 16 inches
Courtesy Henry Boxer Gallery
    Manuel Bonifacio, Untitled, c.2013. crayon on paper 12 x 16 inches Courtesy Henry Boxer Gallery
  • Jerry The Marble Faun, Pairs (Big Edie and Little Edie), 2009.
Limestone and moss
13 1/2 x 19 x 6 ½ inches
Courtesy Jackie Kl
    Jerry The Marble Faun, Pairs (Big Edie and Little Edie), 2009. Limestone and moss 13 1/2 x 19 x 6 ½ inches Courtesy Jackie Klempay
  • Larry John Palsson (1948-2010), Untitled, n.d.,
acrylic on art board
11.25 x 14.5 inches
Courtesy J. Compton Gallery
    Larry John Palsson (1948-2010), Untitled, n.d., acrylic on art board 11.25 x 14.5 inches Courtesy J. Compton Gallery
  • Gerard Cambon, Peek Frean's, 2006.
mixed media
9 x 16 x 4 inches
Courtesy Judy A. Saslow Gallery
    Gerard Cambon, Peek Frean's, 2006. mixed media 9 x 16 x 4 inches Courtesy Judy A. Saslow Gallery
  • “Uncle Pete” Drgac, Untitled, 1972.
enamel on paper
14 x 22 inches
Courtesy The Pardee Collection
    “Uncle Pete” Drgac, Untitled, 1972. enamel on paper 14 x 22 inches Courtesy The Pardee Collection
  • Martín Ramírez, Untitled, (Stag on mound with fireworks), c.1952-53.
graphite, tempera and crayon on paper
32 x 19 1/2 inches
    Martín Ramírez, Untitled, (Stag on mound with fireworks), c.1952-53. graphite, tempera and crayon on paper 32 x 19 1/2 inches; 81.3 x 49.5 cm Courtesy Ricco Maresca
  • Howard Finster, I AM A Gourd, 1982.
12 x 7 inches diameter
Courtesy The Ames Gallery
    Howard Finster, I AM A Gourd, 1982. 12 x 7 inches diameter Courtesy The Ames Gallery
  • Howard Finster, I AM A Gourd, 1982.
12 x 7 inches diameter
Courtesy The Ames Gallery
    Howard Finster, I AM A Gourd, 1982. 12 x 7 inches diameter Courtesy The Ames Gallery
  • John Brill (b. 1951 NJ), Plasma, 2013.
pigmented inkjet print on 100% cotton paper, with UV-shielding varnish
image c. 5" x 4
    John Brill (b. 1951 NJ), Plasma, 2013. pigmented inkjet print on 100% cotton paper, with UV-shielding varnish image c. 5" x 4½"; sheet 8½“ x 11” Courtesy Kent Fine Art
CONVERSATIONS