James Castle

David Zwirner
537 W 20th Street
New York
Jan 13th — Feb 12th

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In an undated drawing, the late artist James Castle depicts the space of his own studio with sharp fidelity: the wood paneling of the walls and slanted ceiling, the chimney place, the hanging lamp. A shelf at center contains rows of neatly ordered dolls; a table at the foreground, an array of carefully arranged books. At the bottom right, he lovingly signed his name in a delicate cursive. On view at David Zwirner gallery is an exhibition of Castle’s drawings and assemblages, launched in conjunction with the James Castle Collection and Archive LP.

Born deaf in Garden Valley, Idaho, in the final year of the 19th century, Castle did not write, speak or read—his artist’s signature being one of the few exceptions. The world came to him at the post office where he lived with his father, the postmaster. And he, in turn, converted  his world into a veritable universe of symbols, figures and landscapes, drawing works of art with soot from the wood stove, which he binded with saliva and accentuated with household products such as tinted laundry bluing.

Making was a reciprocal process for Castle—the artist depicted his surroundings, then hid his work in the walls or buried them in the land. Some of the neat bundles he cinched his work into are on view here: twined-tied boxes of Kellogg’s corn flakes, a box of cherries, a sheathe of worn fabric. Further works push the boundaries of his universe, such as Untitled (green door) and the tiny Untitled (red house), in which the sky is rendered with thick strokes and the foreground an expanse of color wash.

Castle’s works both ape and contain the outside world. A number of assemblages of birds depict those he’d likely seen firsthand—Untitled (goose construction)—and those he likely hadn’t, such as Untitled (flamingo construction). The figures depicted in the slightly frightening Untitled (five sisters), with their ramrod-straight arms and blocky, ashed-out faces, uncannily recall the five dolls atop a piano in Untitled (interior with piano). Mostly untitled, undated and executed upon scraps of found paper or cobbled together from material found within his home, Castle’s deceptively simple work recalls William Blake’s line about an artist’s capacity “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.” —Lisa Yin Zhang

James Castle, Untitled (figure, red stripe dress), n.d. Courtesy James Castle Collection and Archive LP.