James Castle :: A Retrospective

A cardboard piece from Castle's collection at the Berkeley Art Museum.

For the past two months the Berkeley Art Museum has been home to a multitude of original works by well-known artist James Castle. When I first visited the exhibit I was struck by the wide variety of pieces spread out among the gallery. From small, handmade books, to large landscape drawings, to (my particular favorites) rectangular forms dressed in assorted materials meant to depict clothing, I found the exhibit to be a great survey of James' works. I perused around for a while before picking up the exhibit guide to get a little background on Castle and the pieces before me. To my surprise, the works I had been looking at, which appeared extremely detailed, intricate and used a multitude of words and letters, were all made by a man born profoundly deaf who, perhaps by choice, never learned any form of speech.

The author's favorite piece from the exhibit: a mixed media piece of cardboard materials. Images courtesy of the author.

What's even more notable about Castle is the way he made his pieces. Most of his tools were handcrafted sticks, used to dab soot and spit onto paper. These rare materials were used in his landscape drawings and renderings of rooms that I presume to be from his home in rural Idaho. These pieces, although somewhat repetitive, highlight Castle's acute attention to detail and a fascination with pattern. Other materials included wrapping paper, string, yarn, and assorted collections of popular culture items such as magazines and advertisements. The rectangular forms mentioned previously and pictured above, were dressed in found materials and function as true attention grabbers, being some of the more colorful pieces in the exhibit. I found it impossible to ignore the large variety of popular culture worked into Castle's pieces and as a huge fan of pop art I was happy to see the assortment of postcards, magazine pages and advertisements that show up throughout his works, most notably in his handmade books. One of my personal favorites from the exhibit was a mixed media piece made of found cardboard materials, string and lettering spelling out "place" as seen in the image above.

Overall the exhibit provides a great survey of Castle's works for both fans of Castle and those who may be just learning about Castle as they read on. What's great about this exhibit is the lack of primary source material. No one really knows why James made the works the way he did, what his motivations were, or why he chose to feature the items and scenes that he did. To me this is the magic of art, leaving "beauty to the eye of the beholder." Be sure to head down to see the exhibit at the Berkeley Art Museum before its end this Sunday, April 25th. For more information about the exhibit, please visit BAM's website.

Kelsey Frazier
BARE Reporter

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