Sculpture by James Castle
As close as an eyelid
Painted hardwood
© The Artist 2015

James Castle

Catalogue Essay

"As Close as an Eyelid"
Compass Gallery, Glasgow
March 24th until April 12th 2007

James Castle has developed his sculptural language outside of the artistic mainstream; a sign of this is that he paints his sculpture. Throughout the twentieth century, disparaging millennia of polychromatic work, a figurating layer of paint bore the reputation of a concealing artifice, extraneous to sculptural concerns. Through the agency of critics, writers and artists, similarly anaemic tendencies coalesced into a dominant ideology; an ideology that remains today, though more as a lingering taste than as part of a creed: colour is for painters; poetry is for poets; sculptors make shapes.

However, Castle has not turned his back on the recent history of sculpture: rather, he has chosen to take from it what he needs, and to remain separate. Many of his sculptures employ strong, simple volumes; there are echoes of Brancusi and other Modernist sculptors. His sculptures are made from several laminated sections of wood, carved and then painted; because of their construction, the paint tends to gather along these lamination lines, emphasising the objects' form and structure. But this is an incidental benefit of Castle's figurative use of paint; for his objects are sculptures, but also sculpted images. They have a physical, 'Modernist' presence that stems from their formal qualities; but his use of paint and imagery suggests a different set of concerns, more Medieval than Modernist, and more poetic than those that are currently prevalent.

As well as being sculpturally concerned constructions, his sculptures also symbolise. They have a life beyond the formal object, a poetic and emotional tenor that comes from a sense of analogy and suspended narrative. His work is composed of recognisable, nameable objects, but even in its familiarity, it points to a more poetic mediation between reality and constructed meaning. Let us take Highland House as an example.

This sculpture shows a bird, lying on its back, on top of a house-shaped cairn like structure, which has a large book as its foundation stone. A three-runged ladder grows from the bird's upended feet. The bird is instantly recognisable as a bird - but because of its context, and other qualities of its construction, it assumes a more human significance. Typical of Castle's sculpture, Highland House is a concatenation of familiar things: book, bird, ladder, pebble, house; an unlikely collection of objects that together form a bridge to a stronger, unified poetic image. Much of the power of Castle's work comes from the tension between the sculpture's physical reality and the image, the image being subtly of rather than in the sculpture.

Nowhere is this articulation between the represented object and the poetic image more clear than in Castle's new work for this show, the Shelves, a collection of horizontal, wall-mounted carvings. All of these sculptures are divided laterally. The top half of each object is composed of a section of horizon about 2 inches thick, made to bulge as it accommodates the objects that press into it from below.

Although these forms are drawn from a familiar repertoire, we are unprepared for the startling strangeness of these upside-down shelves: muffling borders that seem to absorb rather than hold. They look a bit like water or landscape, a sort of habitat for the fish and fowl that recur in Castle's work. But they are not just landscape; unusually, these heavy blankets have a kind of blank formalism that draws part of its meaning from sculptural language.

A plinth is a means of presentation, a way of articulating where the fabricated world ends and real life takes over, like the edge of a sheet of paper, or a frame around a painting. As devices that hold and present, these shelves act as plinths; but they obscure half of the sculpture, taking it back into its body, hiding as much as they help to support. There is an equation in these works between the plinth, sculpture's ground, and the land: in the same way that the land can sustain life, pushing forth fruit and crops, it can also open up to receive a body. These plinths seem to articulate the fragile sustenance, the ebb and flow, of creative life.

Castle has drawn throughout his career, both for sculpture, and for its own sake. The Shelves are wall mounted, self-framed objects: the border, like a sheet of paper, seems to set its own limits; but they bulge; these objects are straining, bending under a pressure of containment. In these works, Castle is asking unanswerable questions, questions that have their meaning in being posed as much as answered: what happens outside the sculpture's edge? What can't I see? These are sculptural questions, with aspects of mainstream sculptural debate; but typically for Castle, in his hands, they have an unusual poetic weight.

Benedict Carpenter, London 2007

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