by Robert J. Hughes
All art involves some sort of obsession. In work by some gifted amateurs obsession overcomes skill, training, even coherence.
In Paris right now are two shows devoted to so-called primitive artists (a better term might be "untrained"): the Frenchman Marcel Storr and the American James Castle. Each demonstrates the power of the self-taught artist to forge his own way, one different than a path he might have been taken had he been schooled, had he been, somehow, "normal."
Each operated under a certain disability: Storr was, apparently, illiterate and deaf; Castle too. Both created worlds of strange power, Storr's works the product of a hyperactive and fevered imagination, and Castle's an attempt to distill the everyday into meditative quasi-abstract shapes.
Marcel Storr, bâtisseur visionnaire (or visionary builder), runs through March 31 at Le Pavillon Carré du Badouin in the 20th arrondissement. His drawings on display at this repurposed hôtel particulier draw you in, inexorable and a bit disorienting, like a guide who has led you to a dark strange landscape and then leaves you on your own to figure your way back to the light and a more recognizable reality.
Little is known about Storr (1911-1976). He was a humble groundskeeper at the Bois de Boulougne and various other parks and gardens of Paris. In the meantime he created an urban universe of towering churches and skyscrapers looming over febrile landscapes, part hallucinatory and biblical, part science-fiction and pre-apocalyptic.
He stashed away the drawings – often under the kitchen table cloth. Toward the end of his life, while Storr was out of the house, his wife invited a couple of collectors to see some of his works. Impressed, they tried to convince him to sell them, but he refused. Preferring, perhaps to keep his fantastic urban visions to himself (though he thought highly of what he called his "genius").
Yet his sixty or so creations were gathered together for display after his death, and Storr's works have gradually begun to become known.
This exposition covers four periods marked by the evolving focus of Storr's drawings.
During his first period, from the 1930s to the end of World War II, Storr drew and sketched, in crayon, ink and in watercolor, a series of churches. Some are modeled after Parisian churches, but the architecture is sui generis: they are all the work of Storr, with more towers than you would think a church could support. An excess of excitement about the possibilities for reaching the sky.
The colors here, and in many of his drawings, are rose-pink and orange, with touches of green or yellow or somber green. His palette grew progressively darker, and his later drawings are almost claustrophobic, both in the abundance of tiny details and in the thick and overlaid inking of the drawing.
During the second period, after the war and up to about 1960, Starr created diptychs and triptychs that presented enormous visions of the church as skyscraper – the kind of building you would never see except in a digital rendering of a science-fiction world, as if each fictive house of worship were a sprawling Soviet-era apartment complex with High Gothic delusions and a yearning to launch into outer space. Storr's obsessive drawing style is evident in the repetition of small motifs, such as a gothic cross that is repeated many thousands of times in a drawing.
Storr had a feel for, but not a mastery of, foreshortening and perspective. So sometimes his buildings appear flat on the board, and too tall even for such an imaginary landscape. They can fall toward you or give the impression of extending too far into the background. But they have an undeniable energy.
Storr might not have read, nor heard, and though he spent much of his time crafting an alternate reality, his drawings filter the anxieties of the age. They seem to cry against the atrocities of wartime Europe, to shudder from the threat of nuclear annihilation, to want to capture the inhumanity of society even as they depict a world that represents a vision of, for Storr, something like hope. The exuberance of these drawings belies the autumnal gloom of their colors, and the weight of their inking.
In the third period shown here, from 1964, is a series of twenty-five imaginary basilicas or cathedrals, all in the same format, in autumnal colors (ochre, yellow), in which the churches (combinations of Notre Dame de Paris and others) feature spikes over the roofs – like radio towers, really – that utterly dwarf the few antlike humans below them. You may think of Monet's Rouen series, but you'll quickly think again. Storr's series of churches don't represent states of light, of day, of fleeting time or the shifting colors of an emotional reverie of seeing and interpreting. These are at once blunt and delicate, childlike and wizened. You can't really interpret anything here, but you often find yourself asking, "What was he thinking, exactly?"
Storr himself might not have known. But these aren't places for worship (unless it involves supplication), nor cities for living: they are visions of a weird alternate reality that exists under a cloudy orange light that fosters strange vegetation and stranger architecture.
In what would be his final phase, Storr drew dense, unwieldy megacities, the architecture a phantasmagoric combination of ziggurats, towers, domes, poles, and the cities heavy with gardens, extraordinary vehicles, waterways populated with fantastical creatures, a mishmash of references. Buildings that don't seem to be made for habitation, but rather, devotional subjugation. Devotion to Storr's ideas of anti-utopian utopias, perhaps.
James Castle, Sans titre /Untitled (recto/verso), Colour of unknown origin on found paper, 15,2 x 24,1 cm / 6 x 9 1/2 in; Courtesy Galerie Karsten Greve
The show of James Castle's works at Karsten Greve is the first comprehensive exhibition of his drawings and assemblages in France.
They are reminiscent of European collages from the 1930s, but more austere, and somehow very, very American. They capture a prairie stillness and a sense of wonder at the arc of sky and the overhead cast of light everywhere.
Castle was deaf from birth, and never learned to read or write. Like Storr, his illiteracy inspired a fascination with the visual. But unlike Storr who created imaginary cityscapes, Castle took the world and distilled it..
The drawings on display here are of rural buildings, houses, barns, fences, with a sure sense of perspective (and a gift for distorting it): the rural universe of shelter against an immense and awesome nature. His father ran the local post office, and Castle collected the detritus of that work: stamps, envelopes, mailers, repetitive graphics. He saw the fruits and efforts of communication, yet could not do so himself; he turned, luckily, to drawing and collage to express himself through what he saw.
Some of the works feature elegant groupings of letters and numbers – Castle's fascination with the shape and design of the alphabet, of numerals, must surely have arisen from his inability to interpret these ordinary glyphs which, for him, retained a strong sense of a world beyond him, one in which he could not possibly speak through the means that others used to communicate.
James Castle, Untitled (recto/verso), Soot on found paper, 8,5 x 16,8 cm /3 1/3 x 6 2/3 in; Courtesy Galerie Karsten Greve
Living in silence in a landscape at once still and majestic and busy and commonplace inspired these beautiful poetic drawings, so hushed and so full, like a pause in the exhalation of a breath. A room with a chair and a table, perhaps a mere evocation of home, is also a statement about the inability to communicate: the chairs are empty, the room is free of anything other than the barest furniture. The letters and posters and fragments of mailers that Castle assembled don't "talk" about anything: they are words without meaning made of letters with no reason.
The stillness of reality for Castle wasn't a metaphor for the modern-day dilemma of isolation: they are the real observance of a haunted emptiness that arose from a physical isolation that tried to engage with what so many people who can speak and hear and read and write take for granted, and ignore.
~Robert J. Hughes
(Image at top: James Castle, Untitled, 20th Century, Works on Paper (Drawings, Watercolors etc.), h: 21.5 x w: 27.9 cm / h: 8.5 x w: 11 in (41,5 x 46,5 x 3,5 cm (gerahmt); Courtesy of Galerie Karsten Greve)