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by N.F. Karlins
Let’s face it. Soot-and-spit drawings aren’t common, even in today’s anything-goes art scene. Nor are layered constructions made with tarpaper and twine. Yet both types of work are common in the oeuvre of James Castle (1899-1977), the famously deaf artist from Boise, Idaho, and both are avidly collected. Striking works in both media can be seen in "James Castle: A Retrospective," now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Oct. 14, 2008-Jan. 4, 2009.

Organized by the Museum’s curator of drawings, Ann Percy, the show delves into James Castle’s drawings, constructions, text pieces and handmade books, yet this exemplary and utterly fascinating show, by far the largest to date, can only be suggestive, as Castle’s oeuvre consists of more than 20,000 mostly small works, and that’s despite the loss of about one third of his production (nearly all his early pieces).

James Castle started drawing when he was six or seven years old. He developed his spit-and-soot method early, too, using the soot from a wood-burning stove on his parents’ farm. 

Castle appropriated items from mass culture before the term "appropriation" even existed. He reused the flyers and brochures that flowed through the post office his family ran in addition to a series of farms. His family was thrifty; so was he. He made art from used paper of every kind -- the backs of envelopes, of the schoolwork of his six siblings, magazines, circulars, calendars, news clippings and used paper containers -- automatically imbuing his works with the texture of the past.

In his tonally rich and diverse soot-and-spit drawings, Castle investigates his family, the houses he lived in, the family’s livestock, and his fellow students at the Idaho School of the Deaf and Blind. Castle was profoundly deaf from birth and refused or was unable to learn speech or American Sign Language at the school, but took craft classes and spent five years there before returning home to make more art. With his parents’ encouragement, he did little on the farm but create art every day for the rest of his life.

Castle’s work provides one man’s view of rural Idaho between about 1910 and 1970. Along the way, Castle mastered linear perspective and paid special attention to how things worked. He made close-ups of doorknobs and locks, views of buildings from every angle, and even schematics of building plans. 

More surreal are James Castle’s imaginary "friends" and strange totems that intrude into landscapes. He clearly experimented with transposing the sizes, shapes and locations of objects, so that a bottle-like form might dominate a landscape, but the effect is often eerie.

Castle also made full-color drawings with broad areas of color scratched into a variety of textures. For these, Castle employed a waxy surface, often the back of an ice-cream carton that he selectively roughened with whittled sticks or nails, then painted with color squeezed from wetted crepe paper.

Castle’s thousands of small books and text pieces show that he understood the power of words even if he couldn’t or wouldn’t say them. In addition to tearing texts from newspapers and magazines, he also would draw lettering, animating the mechanical. He could reverse this process. In some of his soot-and-spit drawings, people become inanimate.  Some figures are "friends" he made up, and some of these "friends" have chairs or books for heads.

No one knows if Castle had some level of autism in addition to deafness. Because of his willingness to break down boundaries between the animate and inanimate, it’s a possibility. But he was gregarious, if unspeaking, and took out selected pieces to share with family and friends.

What’s most important about Castle, though, is more knowable -- the wit and grace with which he made his art. Some of his text pieces are a poetic scramble of letters. Others, like "Labor Day,"  "taxes," and "learn living," prove he had some understanding of words and syntax (and how American can you get with ideas like these?).

Castle’s three-dimensional pieces -- animals, objects, but especially people -- are multi-layered, often sewn with scraps of thread, string and/or ribbon, and may possibly reflect his having taken a course in tailoring.  Whatever the source of wonderment, Castle was enthralled with the "construction" of people and their clothes. I find pieces like his Woman in Blue Coat and Red Plaid Skirt among his most complex and satisfying works.

It’s a shame that "James Castle: A Retrospective" is being shown only in Philadelphia. Castle is widely known in New York, where he has a big following among artists and the public. 

The catalogue for "James Castle: A Retrospective," edited by curator Ann Percy and with an important essay by her, is an insightful and well-illustrated read that comes with a DVD of the documentary James Castle: Portrait of the Artist by Jeffrey Wolf, which is also being shown during the exhibition. So if you can’t get to Philly, or even if you can, the catalogue is a must.

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If you do go to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, don’t miss another landmark show devoted to an elusive 19th-century American painter: "Thomas Chambers: American Marine and Landscape Painter: 1808-1869." 

Chambers was good painter, not a great one, but he was distinctive, using luridly colored skies to brighten his oils. He is the beneficiary of a major exhibition thanks to Kathleen A. Foster, the Robert L. McNeil, Jr. senior curator of American art and director of the Center for American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Once thought of as an itinerant folk artist, then claimed in the early 20th century as one of the first moderns, Chambers has a story that is more complex. New research has unearthed his early history as an English-born sailor-turned-painter. And the show presents decorative arts that link his career to the taste for "fancy" goods during the early 19th century.  

 "Thomas Chambers" subsequently appears at the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, N.Y., Feb. 8- April 19, 2009; the American Folk Art Museum in New York, Sept. 29-Mar. 7, 2010; and the Indiana University Art Museum in Bloomington, Mar. 26–May 30, 2010.

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Back in New York, the American Folk Art Museum’s curator Brooke Davis Anderson got an email after the museum’s retrospective of the Mexican-American draughtsman Martín Ramírez. It led to the uncovering of a huge cache of new work -- in pretty good condition for drawings made with pieced sheets of trashed papers glued together with spit and mashed potatoes, another case of unique media.

Ramírez (1895-1963), an immigrant who sought work in California, was institutionalized the last half of his life as a schizophrenic, having been found disoriented and extremely ill on the street in 1931. He started to draw on scavenged paper in the early 1930s and was encouraged and supplied with materials by at least two doctors. 

The family of the last doctor to befriend him discovered about 120 works, stored in a garage, that had to have been made between 1960 and 1963. Since only about 300 works by Ramírez had been know previously, all undated, this was a major find.

Now the museum is showing 25 of the newly discovered pieces in "Martín Ramírez: The Last Works," Oct. 7, 2008-Apr. 12, 2009. Ramírez’s woozily exhilarating spatial sculpting in graphite, colored pencil and gouache becomes even wilder and more self-assured in these new works, especially in his trains and tunnel pieces. 

In his earlier works, Ramírez used color subtly, often in carefully controlled touches rather than in large areas, if at all. These late works have a bit more color in a greater range.  

Ramírez added new subjects, too, including the image of a ship at sea, probably based on the interior of a cigar box. A piece with a collage of a church from Arizona Highways magazine is a new find, as are several new takes on Ramírez’s "jenete," or horseback rider. The horseback rider appeared in about 80 of the previously known 300 drawings, most often on a stage and brandishing a pistol. In most of the new drawings, he’s been released from the stage and blows a gigantic bugle.

The only show in Chelsea as good as this one at the moment is the companion Ramírez show at Ricco/Maresca Gallery, Oct. 2-Nov. 28, 2009. The gallery is selling the remaining drawings for the descendents of the doctor: $65,000 for the small ones up to $400,000 for the largest. Get them while you can!

N.F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.