Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Innocent Eye of James Castle

Many of the great modernists, particularly those who had connections to surrealism, were proponents of artwork created by children, the untrained, and the insane. There was a naivete associated with this work that some modernists were striving for in their own. The idea behind this was that these works were able to communicate the most primitive and primary elements of human experience in the most broadly understandable way. Children, or the insane, have no intellectual baggage of art history and world culture that comprised the bedrock of art making over the centuries.

There is probably something to this, though the concept can lead to comments such as, "My three-year-old could do that." The problem is that we cannot unlearn what we, as artists, know of art history. And though Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings may seem like something a child could produce, they most assuredly are not. The skill of making something look effortless is on par with making something look "realistic." The latter, after all, was one of the chief goals of artists until the most recent decades and is still one of the elements that many in a general audience prefer. A good example of someone who could achieve both is John Singer Sargent. Up close the brush strokes look haphazard and fully abstract, yet from a distance they form astonishing portrait likenesses. The look is fresh, not belabored, but was no simple task.

It is rare to find an artist so detached from the past and the present who is still able to communicate to the common viewer and attract the interest of the art world elite. The prime example of an artist who achieved this is someone whose life shows why this is an anomaly. While I was living in Idaho in the late 1990s I came upon the work of James Castle. He was already deceased but his work has only started to gain national attention in the last decade. I was able to view Castle’s work at his primary dealer’s gallery—the J. Crist Gallery in Boise—and at the Boise Art Museum.

What makes Castle’s work special? For one, he lived in remote Garden Valley, Idaho for most of his life. Added to this was the fact that he was both deaf and mute. Once one sees his choice of media the equation is further complicated.
James Castle’s parents owned the general store/post office in Garden Valley. It is from here that James literally "found" most of his art making materials. Cast off or unclaimed cardboard, envelopes, paper, catalogs and magazines were the foundation of much of his work. This would not seem shocking in the era of Cubist collages, but the work of some avant garde artists in Paris was more than a world away from a deaf-mute boy in rural Idaho. Now, it was not for lack of encouragement from James’ family that he employed these materials. His parents bought him every imaginable "normal" art material. He just refused to use them.

If you are not already impressed by Castle’s ingenuity wait for the last ball to drop. The ink that he used to draw imagery on his found papers was made from soot and his own saliva, applied with wooden sticks that he sharpened himself. Some of his drawings may seem crude, but when you consider all this the images take on a new significance. Personally, I would find the works important on a level of pure human achievement, not artistic merit, if it was not for their more transcendent qualities.

Art was Castle’s communication with the wide world outside of himself. I think it is appealing to contemporary connoisseurs because it retains many of the qualities of the best postmodern and contemporary art. Some elements are easily recognizable and understandable, while others are beyond our comprehension. The work communicates on certain levels, but is often open to several interpretations. Castle shares our world, but not fully.

I have often been drawn to two specific types of Castle’s work. Some of the drawings mimic the format of high school yearbooks. Small portraits are placed in a grid pattern on the paper, while scribbled lines that stand in for text rest below each image. There are even examples that have been sewn together like books. Though Castle could not read or write (aside from his own name) he clearly understood the significance of the written word. We can only assume that this was ingrained in him even more by observing all the printed matter and letters that passed through the post office.

In 2006 I had the privilege of viewing some of Castle’s work at the Knoedler and Co. Gallery on the upper east of New York City. This work, mostly with elements of letters or text in it, was paired with some late Polaroid photographs by Walker Evans (the exhibition was titled: James Castle and Walker Evans:Wordplay, Signs, and Symbols). It was a compelling comparison. Castle’s work certainly held its own next to one of the twentieth century’s most important artists. The manipulation and recontextualization of letter forms displayed a higher level of creativity than I had previously seen in Castle’s compositions.

The other "series" of Castle’s work that impresses many is his constructions. Utilizing the same found materials, James would build objects he observed in his world. Birds, animals, and sometimes people were crafted by folding and coloring (with what means we are still not certain) papers. Crude sewing was often a means of binding the little sculptures together. The ingenuity of all this is uncanny. Because of his limited communication skills one recognizes that Castle’s powers of observation were far above the average individual.

Again, this is a great story of human triumph, but I assert that it is more. These images are complex and multilayered. They are not the elementary scribblings of a child. Castle is what we often refer to as an Outsider Artist. He is outside the elite art world because he was not groomed and trained within its somewhat incestuous and closed system. However, his work is appreciated for having that primal and untrained quality. Much of the work heralded as the best Outsider Art these days fails to impress. The slap dash qualities, inherent in so much of the work, can come off as cliche instead of significant.

James Castle is among a handful of Outsider Artists who compete as equals among the best artists of their time. If one forgets the backstory of Castle the work still holds up. I suggest that in Castle’s case we should be considered the outsiders. We exist outside of his closed system. We are deciphering his messages, his language, that we cannot wholly comprehend. This makes for work that is not static. It compels us to come back again and again.

Castle’s first major museum survey opened in October 2008 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The museum also has an exhibit of jewelry fashioned by Alexander Calder (until November 2008) that is well worth seeing.

Woodcuts: Questioning an Evolving Style

This is one of the most recent woodcut projects currently under production in my studio. I have not yet titled it. I usually wait until the edition has been printed before I do that. This was a test print (also known as a state proof) of the first of two blocks. I thought I had finished carving this, but if you look between the two central feet you will find that the filigree texture had not yet been carved out. It will be soon.

This is yet another woodcut featuring feet. Feet were not a preconceived motif for this series, but they did show up often as the pieces progressed. I have been working on the series on and off for about seven years. I am revising two earlier prints and have this one and four others to cut and print before the series is finally complete. People often ask what the "hairy or furry" areas are. The plain and simple truth is that they are design shapes that add texture and movement to the compositions. I arrived at them organically and they then started to weave their way into my style. They don’t "represent" anything in particular, nor do they have any hidden meaning.

Speaking of style… I’ve had several people tell me that the woodcuts remind them of work by Albrecht Durer. I can understand where they are coming from, but I would never put myself on that level. The reality is that I certainly look to Durer’s work for inspiration and design elements. He is, obviously, one the greatest masters of the woodcut print. There are also only so many ways that the medium can be used to create representational figurative images. So, there will inevitably be some similarities.

My woodcuts are easily recognizable as a particular style, but I am currently considering what will follow this series once it is complete. The importance of combining text and imagery has me questioning how concept will eventually impact technique in the woodcuts. My 2007 Christmas card print was the only relief print to date that combined image and text. It still looked like my typical style but with text lightly spread through the background. It would be nice to more fully integrate word and image, like I am doing with the current etching/intaglio series, but I may need to forfeit some of the recognizability of my current style. This ends up being a fairly common concern among professional artists. Do you keep churning out the work that people really connect with (and are more apt to buy) or do you take risks into some uncharted territory? Stay tuned to find out how I resolve that.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Bill Viola: Video Art’s Role in the Museum Experience

When an artist chooses to produce work in a medium that is not a more traditional material the general viewer can find the work somewhat suspect. This may be more pronounced when it comes to video as an art form. Video, by no means, is new. Artists have been using it for over forty years, in one form or another. In the 1960s and 70s much of the video work produced had documentation as its basis, though there were some truly experimental pioneers such as Nam June Paik. Today, with the proliferation of miniDV recorders, video phones, and iMovie software anyone with access can create video works. Much of what the novice produces in this medium still has documentation at its core, and video remains a democratic medium. It is for everyone.

The fate of video is related to its older sibling, photography. Both have had some difficulty gaining acceptance as full fledged art media. The popularity and accessibility of each with the masses is at the heart of this. Once Kodak made film cameras inexpensive enough for the average middle class citizen there was a certain cheapening of the medium. Everyone could fancy himself or herself a Photographer. However, the snapshots for which most of us are responsible are simply not the same thing as a photograph produced by a fine artist. The medium is the same but the skill, intent, and process are worlds apart. It used to be that an artist spent an exceptional amount of time in the darkroom, assuring that the final photographic print was tweaked in just the right ways. Now that time is often spent in Photoshop. Either way, there is much more to these images than what results when most of us snap a cell phone image while on vacation at the beach.

Returning to video, the analogy can be made with YouTube. There are many humorous and interesting videos floating around cyberspace. The vast majority can scarcely be considered art and the creation of these does not prove their maker to be an artist or a great cinematographer. Yet there does remain some video that is, and should be, considered high art.

My observation, time and again, relating to the general public’s attitude toward video as art, has less to do with the medium than a broader attitude toward art. When video art is displayed in gallery and museum settings a common scenario is repeated day after day. Viewers approach the screen or wall where the video is displayed, look at what is transpiring for maybe ten seconds, get bored and move on. This isn’t unique to video. It happens with traditional paintings and sculpture as well.

The best of video art, however, has something unique to offer those who wish to view art. Time. Without the time element a video is just a still image—a photograph. There, of course, can be sound, too. That is peripheral to the element of time, though it may certainly be essential to a given work. The misperception with which many approach video is that it should be fast paced and to the point—instantaneously understood. This is exactly what a consumerist culture has prepared us to accept and expect. We view more traditional art forms in this same fashion because our lives move at fiber optic speed.

A contemporary master of video—and the element of time in particular—is Bill Viola. His ideas and themes are ancient though his choice of medium is fairly modern. Blending elements of Christianity, Buddhism, Sufism and other eastern philosophies, Viola explores the questions that have plagued us since the birth of humanity. These ideas are so pertinent that he demands our attention—our time—through his medium of choice.

There is a particularly excellent example of Viola’s work in the Yale University Art Gallery. When I came upon Study for Emergence in the museum galleries it was just over half-way through its 10 minute playing cycle. I expect that this may be another reason why viewers abandon video pieces so quickly. When you start mid-way through you miss important information. Patience is essential. This is a fairly long piece. It moves achingly slow. Two women are perched upon low steps. At the top of the steps is a large stone box. Not far into the piece each woman proceeds to move through an anguished and dramatic act of grieving. Because the scene is significantly slowed down we observe their pain in a more heightened and intense way.

The women interact in a cursory manner. They are never fully consoling one another. Their grief seems common, but not actually shared—it is deeply personal. Ever so slowly, water begins to cascade down the sides of the stone box. It flows down the steps, interrupting the women in their sorrow. Again, very slowly, the women begin to move up the steps to what is now being revealed as a sepulcher. From within the water filled tomb rises a pale and limp figure of a man. The women muster enough strength to lift the body from its chamber and rest it upon the steps on which they first began the sequence.

The imagery would be poignant even at normal speed but the belabored slowness of the work acts as a magnifying glass on their emotions. I viewed the work about two and half times. This is asking a lot of the viewer. Without that kind of commitment, however, the nuances are not revealed. Not only is the artist asking much from the viewer, he is asking a lot of the art. That is what is actually expected from art, that it is transcendent, able to take us above and beyond the banalities of every day existence.

It is a tall order to ask viewers to invest this kind of time on an individual work of art. With the current trend of crowded blockbuster museum exhibitions it isn’t really even feasible in many instances. Still, the challenge to the viewer is relevant. Art is one of the exceptions for most people. We approach it passively, expecting it to tell its story and reveal its meaning immediately. When reading literature we expect to work a little at it. There are truths to be revealed but we have to dig a little to find them. Even those who enjoy watching sporting events understand that in order to fully appreciate them they need to understand the rules of the game. In short, we have to do our homework.

Contemporary art is not self evident. It does not become any clearer by avoiding it. The challenge is to take the time to look past normal expectations and preconceptions. Viewers need to be in dialogue with the work. That, like all things worth doing in this life, takes an investment of time.

“And why are those people naked…?”

There is one question that invariably arises when people view my artwork. “Just why are all the people naked?” Nude is the correct term, but that is not something to quibble over for the time being. There are several answers to the question and I will address each of them in turn, but I need to lay out a bit of my background before I do that.

The vocation of artist was not something that one would have foreseen in my future early on. I grew up in a small village—not even large enough to be designated a town—in Michigan. It is quite rural and many of my friends and classmates actually lived on farms. A large percentage of my family were and are teachers. And while most in my family are musically inclined, any artistic leanings never led toward any formal training or professions within the creative sector.

Academically, I was a fairly exceptional student which provided many options for a career path. It was not until I entered high school that it became obvious to me that what I truly enjoyed most was creating artwork. At that time, like many artistically talented kids, my main goal was producing realistic drawings and paintings, often of animals and wildlife. What can I say? I grew up pretty close to the earth and my family and friends certainly appreciated that style. Much to my dismay, several of those old paintings still adorn the homes of my family members.

Once I began my formal art education in college the trajectory of my work soon took shape. I had an equal interest in art history and was drawn to figurative painters, in particular. I honestly didn’t start out planning to produce mostly nude figures, but in order to understand the human body, even clothed, one needs to know its structure without clothing. When I began to produce work with nude figures, even from the first, it made me somewhat of a maverick. Since I come from a very conservative evangelical/fundamentalist protestant background, and the undergraduate institutions I attended share a similar heritage, the work wasn’t deemed as the most appropriate. It continued to cause problems in those settings as time went on.

Fast forwarding to the work of the past decade, I am able to explain the use of the nude in more depth. On the most basic level I am following in the long tradition of figurative artists going back to the Greeks. Modern and contemporary artists who have had a profound impact on me are Leonard Baskin, Lucian Freud, Kathe Kollwitz, and Odd Nerdrum. Surveying the work of these artists one can easily see that I am often drawn to more psychological and sublime portrayals of the human form. The figure is an equal element with color, value, shape, and line inside the composition.

The next, more generalized reason for employing the nude figure, is connected to my use of text along with imagery in my work. I am exploring an incarnational view in which the person of Jesus is at once the Word of God, but also the physical manifestation of God on earth. The Word and Image of God, equally. As my friend Ed Knippers often states, if Jesus truly came in full, physical, human form, as a Jewish man, then he came anatomically correct. This doesn’t mean that I am glorifying his sexuality, but neglecting or subverting it is equally dangerous. It amounts to a modern day Gnosticism. This is actually one of the most shocking premises of Christianity and it continues to be a difficult element of the faith.

Conservative American Christianity is often more than uncomfortable with the body and sexuality. Again, this leads to a renewed Gnosticism. While there is plenty of pronouncement against adultery, fornication, and homosexuality, there has been far too little time given to discussing human sexuality in the most basic sense. The fear that talking about sexuality openly and frankly, because it might be an encouragement to young people to experiment sexually, has led to neglecting to talk about it much at all. That lack of discussion has probably, inadvertently, led to more than one teenage pregnancy. What I am getting at by using these nude figures is confronting this basic fact of human sexuality as part of the fullness of our humanity.

I would add that this is not relegated solely to conservative forms of American Christianity but is symptomatic of American culture in general. The Puritan roots of American culture have somehow led to us overly sexualizing the physical body so that any hints of the body in our culture connect it to sexual themes or concepts. So, even the average America, Christian or not, is apt to find nudity in art as vaguely or explicitly erotic or perverse.

The final, specific use of the nude in my work is related to the nude figures portrayed in the altarpieces. In this instance the nudity is used as a leveling agent. Again, my protestant background comes into play here. These “personal saints” are every day, common people, not necessarily those canonized by the Holy Roman Church. I have chosen to portray them as saints, venerating them for living exemplary lives in one way or another. They are ordinary people placed on a pedestal for others to consider. Saints are living all around us. As I elevate them I also bring them back down to the level of each of us. They are equally as human as you and me.

I know that producing work with nude figures is ensuring that some people will find it not to be child-friendly, or even cause them to label it as obscene. It also limits those who will be willing to purchase it. That is the risk that I take. I find that being true to what the work is calling me to do is ultimately more important. If the work is not honest in that sense it will eventually be evident to the viewer.