Paula Castillo, “Moon Pie” (detail), installation view (photo by Miguel Maldonado, all images courtesy galleryFRITZ and Paula Castillo)

SANTA FE — Paula Castillo grew up in rural New Mexico in the 1960s and ’70s, in the small town of Belén, south of Albuquerque. As a child, one of Castillo’s chores was to help her dad organize his scrap heaps, pulling nails from wood and sorting metal. She became a sculptor working primarily in steel, based in Española in northern New Mexico. But in 2017, she returned home to care for her parents. She began to help her dad again, this time with a small quarry he ran until just recently. Driving back and forth to the pit, she noticed a dramatic mountain known as a sky island. “The shocking thing is that, although I consider myself a visual person, I couldn’t remember seeing this mountain growing up. So it became my visual metaphor for an inquiry into origins.” The familiar world of her childhood, made strange by time, is the impetus for Castillo’s new body of work, now featured at galleryFRITZ in the exhibition That Mountain Over There (now I see her).

Castillo’s work is deeply engaged with the beautiful imperfections of everyday life. Her work includes meditations on the natural world as well as narratives involving her personal history as a native New Mexican of Lebanese and Mexican descent. The wall installation “Somewhere” maps Castillo’s own journeys between Central and North America, and where they intersect with migrant routes.

Paula Castillo, “Silver Seeds” (2019), mild industrial steel plate, 19.5 x 28 x 30” with “Somewhere” (2019) in the background

“Moon Pie” occupies center stage at the exhibition: a giant, free-hanging disk nearly ten feet wide. Although made of long, thin nails bristling from a frame of steel mesh, it has a curiously approachable quality. The nails (known as landscape ties) are bent, as if part of a natural system: perhaps stiff fur that’s been rubbed in a certain direction. According to curator George Brugnone, visitors often ask to “pet” it (permission is given, with a warning to be careful).

Paula Castillo, “The Scallop” (2019), steel mesh & mild industrial steel plate, 18.5 x 28 x 9.5”

The work in That Mountain Over There (now I see her) is rooted in the New Mexico of Castillo’s youth. “I didn’t know any artists back then,” she told me during a phone interview, “but everybody could make things. I saw people welding, casting concrete, fixing things. And there was this amazing nature.” There were also railroad tracks running 20 yards from her family’s home, which gave Castillo her first sense of how the local was tied to the global. She describes her piece “There’s No Infinity” as an attempt to “capture in a brief gesture that scaling of the tracks to the infinite.” Paired steel rectangles retreat into the distance; but what Donald Judd would have made precise and mathematical becomes, in the hands of Castillo, an organic progression with the groundline swelling and slabs shifting. “Growing up next to the tracks I could see that nothing made by humans is ever perfect.”

Paula Castillo, “There’s No Infinity” (2019), mild industrial steel plate, 141.5 x 39.5 x 2”

The more than 40 pieces at galleryFRITZ were all made since her return to Belén. They range from the playful grandeur of “Moon Pie” to intimately crafted objects only a few inches in diameter. Some pieces are simple, others ornamented; some smooth, others rough. Each, however, is rooted in Castillo’s newly heightened awareness of how her vision was shaped at an early age by where she grew up. The spectacular, ever-present landscape of southern New Mexico was the setting for a world where people made things with their hands, creating a dialogue between nature and culture that continues to run through her work.

Paula Castillo: That Mountain Over There (now I see her) continues at galleryFRITZ (540 S. Guadalupe Street, Santa Fe, New Mexico) through August 25.

Susan Wallner

Susan Wallner writes and produces documentaries with a focus on art and history. As a principal at PCK Media, she is a key figure in the production of State...