Artist Paula Castillo Returns to Her Rural Roots

BELEN, New Mexico — Sculptor Paula Castillo has revisited her roots with Piggyback, an installation at the University of New Mexico’s Valencia County campus. The artist created the works on view in response to her experience of returning to Belen, New Mexico, the town where she grew up (not far from the campus), to care for her elderly parents. 

Castillo is motivated by the interactions between the physical and cultural landscape, and with the works in Piggyback, specifically, an urge to question the “givenness” or assumptions we have about objects, locations, and circumstances. The show is described as “a community memoir and an ode to how the small and humble origins of our first places carry all spectral life movements”; I understand this as a way of expressing that her early experiences in this region have guided her life since. In keeping with the theme of return — renegotiating, supporting, and carrying on — Piggyback revisits some of Castillo’s most persistent materials and imagery.

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Paula Castillo, “The Tunnel” (2012-22), reworked horse fencing, dimensions variable

Created for the small campus’s exhibition space, the installation includes three sculptures and two works on paper. “The Tunnel” (2012–22) is a large metal sculpture in a matte sky blue that comprises reworked corral panels piled up in the room’s most spacious corner. The work is at once open and chaotic, folded in on itself. Through its “economy of expression,” as Castillo describes it, “The Tunnel” brings to mind the various forces that might cause such reconfigurations. I think of cars running off the road, highway collisions, farm machinery and caged animals, property and trespassing, and my own memories of climbing similar fences as a kid, eating raw corn from the fields in the summer heat. I think of how our beliefs and relationships get twisted by the forces of time, expectations, responsibilities, by all that we don’t let in or out.  

“That Mountain Over There” (2019–22), a weathered wood surveyor stand, is wedged in a tighter corner of the space, draped with a thin, pink plastic sheet. Its small platform is topped with a collection of rusty metal discs, welded together like a tidy bundle of keys. I strained to see all angles of the arrangement but, because of its corner placement, I could look only at one side of the sculpture. The small folds of the drape, which morphed before my eyes into a tablecloth or skirt, seemed to converse with the wrinkled bends, forced curves, and acute corners of “The Tunnel.”

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Paula Castillo, “The Tunnel” (2012-22), detail, reworked horse fencing, dimensions variable

Opposite “That Mountain Over There” is “Small Bund” (2013–22) a short stack of low-profile cinder blocks that act as a pedestal for a tumbleweed-like bundle made from hand-twisted wire. As I crouched down to look closer, I felt as if I was looking at a plant in bloom or a creature at the bottom of the sea. I’m reminded that the desert of New Mexico, once under water, now aches for more of it. “There Is No Infinity,” a chalk-pastel drawing on paper, depicts an open-ended section of lime-green cattle-guard fencing. It may also refer to a hair comb, or it may be nothing of the sort. But here, as with the other work on paper, “The Forest” (2013–22), Castillo illustrates how abstraction can prompt powerful emotional responses.

The rurally situated UNM-Valencia branch community college provides its relatively small student population, the majority of whom identify as Hispanic, with the first two years of study toward a BFA. (Enrollment for the 2020–21 academic year numbered 330 full-time and 1,105 part-time students.) As a teaching school — meaning that it is centered on student success and diverse career and academic opportunities, and tenure is based on scholarly work — the branch boasts a photography darkroom, ceramics studio, an in-process maker-space that will support a range of fabrication techniques, a film and digital media program, and game design classrooms and programs, with extensive online courses even before the pandemic. These first two years prime students for success.

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Installation view of Paula Castillo: Piggyback at the University of New Mexico Valencia Fine Arts Gallery

When I visited the campus to see Castillo’s show I expected a typical gallery space, but what I found was a foyer of sorts, an active, wide space that connects the main entrance, an office, classrooms, and the restrooms. It was impossible to enter the building, let alone move through it, and not engage with the art. The decision to use this space as a gallery drove home the fact that art can, and perhaps must, be a daily experience.

My appreciation for the humble origins Castillo refers to runs deep, especially when it comes to community college. My grandfather started one in Columbus, Ohio, with an initial enrollment of 67 students. So I felt an immediate emotional connection to this UNM branch and the artist’s decision to install her work here. Castillo spent two years at Yale University before leaving to work in an electronics factory, where she embarked on her career in contemporary art, one that now encompasses numerous exhibitions, public art commissions, and research-driven community and environmental projects. The value she sees in creating artworks for this community of artists, educators, and student-artists positively expands perceptions of where and why art and matters. 

Paula Castillo: Piggyback continues at University of New Mexico Valencia Fine Arts Gallery (280 La Entrada Road, Los Lunas, New Mexico) through April 22. The exhibition was curated by Sarah Heyward.


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