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James Castle and Walker Evans

word play, signs and symbols
Knoedler and Company

May 4–August 11, 2006

James Castle, “Untitled,” Not dated. Found paper, soot 3 5/8×8 1/2 inches. Courtesy of Knoedler and Company.

In an exhibition entitled word play, signs and symbols, Knoedler and Company has insightfully paired collages and drawings by James Castle with a selection of Walker Evans’ late SX 70 Polaroids. Both artists found a way to flourish in isolation. As a deaf mute who never learned to read, write, or sign, Castle (1900-1977) was an outsider who, for all intents and purposes, possessed only the language that he made up. His parents were postmasters in rural Idaho, where their home also served as the general store. He transformed the detritus of commercial advertising and post office supplies into collages and made drawings from his own brew of soot and spit. Tracing letters and numbers and collecting them in tables like so many strange butterflies captured and preserved for further study, Evans worked from what was at hand to recreate language after his own intuition. Late in his life, financial struggles and divorce had placed Evans (1903-1975) in an isolated situation. Like Castle, he was alone and relied on the charity of friends and students for support. It was at this point that he took up the Polaroid SX-70. Its quick results, intense colors, and milky resolution were a perfect fit.

“It’s easy to imagine that (Jasper) Johns would approve,” Stephen Westfall writes in the catalogue essay of one tiny collage by Castle of a shirt folded out of a magazine advertisement with the aid of charcoal and a bit of string. Here, Westfall identifies a dilemma central to Castle’s work. Its formal sophistication belies an uncanny eye—uneducated to be sure—but very much attuned to meaning in the visual world. With that in mind, how useful is the definition of “outsider” with which Castle is often labeled? Should he not instead be seen in tandem with, as well as in opposition to the seminal figures in Pop art? Castle offers a very different outlook on the American subjects so dear to these artists, one comparatively devoid of irony. Johns and particularly Rauschenberg share with Castle a passion for the latent poetry present in the most common objects and images. Through association with superficiality and decay Warhol and Koons take a different path.

Walker Evans, “Sankey’s Ice Cream, Taunton, Massachusetts” (October 14, 1974). Polaroid SX-70 print, unique, 4 1/4×3 1/2 inches (image: 3 1/8×3 1/8 inches). Courtesy of Knoedler and Company.

Evans’ images, like Castle’s, are full of affection for their subjects. The minute scale of the work contributes to this as does the particular resolution of the SX-70. “Sankey’s Ice Cream, Taunton, Massachusetts” shows the tall milk bottle shape of Sankey’s store against dark trees at dusk. Its ghostly form hovers between earth and sky, anchored by foreground power lines in an elegant composition. The nostalgia that suffuses this piece and all of Evan’s Polaroids is entirely benevolent. There is a whimsy and a genuine sort of innocence (the kind to which Warhol could only pretend) that seems to be a holdover from Evans’ formative, depression-era days. It is almost painfully American.

Considering Evans and Castle on an equal footing with other Pop artists draws attention to the deeper roots of our culture’s attitude toward the artifacts it generates. If our attitude toward these objects might be benevolent and their effects on us ameliorative, then we must instead scrutinize our own feelings toward our surroundings for the locus of unease to which Evans and Castle attune us.


Ben La Rocco


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2006

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