Untitled: The art of James Castle.


When I happened upon this book at the public library, Untitled: The art of James Castle, I was drawn in by its title Untitled (having never heard of James Castle).  Opening it I fell in love with his curious drawings. Castle (1899-1977) was a self taught artist from Idaho. He was born deaf and never learned to speak, he was also functionally illiterate.  His drawing are made in notebooks or on found ephemera, including packaging, envelopes or other scraps, and some were created using soot and saliva applied with tissue or sharpened sticks.  The contents of his drawings appear to have been inspired not only by his surroundings (scenes from the farm he lived on, portraits of his family) but also by other images he saw, as well as advertising, and text often as mundane as calendars.


It appears that Castle considered the landscapes and interiors to be the public or shared part of his practice and the text works were more like private musings (Bell, 2014, p. 22).  There is a strange notebook filled with an odd calendar, which starts out with recognisable months “… but these are quickly joined by murky abbreviations for new months, XERM, for example. Some months have thirty-one days but most have thirty-three, -four or -five days (always recorded in proper numerical order). About halfway through the notebook, numbers give way to months populated by letters, first in the same calendrical format, then in a reoriented, elastic grid, hinting at Castle’s effortless departure from the ordinary” (Bell, 2014, pp. 29 – 30).


At this point Kublai Khan interrupted him or imagined interrupting him, or Marco Polo imagined himself interrupted with a question such as: “You advance always with your head turned back?” or “Is what you see always behind you?” or rather, “Does your journey take place only in the past?”

All this so that Marco Polo could explain or imagine explaining or be imagined explaining or succeed finally in explaining to himself that what he sought was always something lying ahead, and even if it was a matter of the past it was a past that changed gradually as he advanced on his journey, because the traveler’s past changes according to the route he has followed: not the immediate past, that is, to which each day that goes by adds a day, but the more remote past. Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreigness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.

(Calvino, 1997, p. 24).



Memory is redundant: it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist.               (Calvino, 1997, p. 16).


Looking backward can so easily be cast as sickly sentimentality or self-involved navel gazing. Somehow the word ‘memory’ has come to imply a romanticising of the past. We forget that it’s not synonymous with nostalgia.

Some revisiting of the past is like sticking a finger into an old wound. Memory also consists of those things we long to forget, but somehow can’t quite. Sometimes I think I prefer other people’s memories.

Despite that, memory is the backbone of the cities we build for ourselves. It is what it is, a set of signifiers that we choose to interpret sometimes this way, sometimes that. Like sand it shifts, it can sift through fingers, and it can settle, pack tight and form a foundation.

Memories themselves are smokescreens. They don’t matter. They are the things on which we construct our stories.



(Stories matter).