SU Art Galleries


SU Art Galleries


Oaxacan Art

October 3 - October 26, 2011
University Gallery, Fulton Hall 109

RECEPTION: Friday, October 21, 5:00 - 7:00pm
 Guerrieri Center, Atrium Gallery

This exhibition features Oaxacan carvings from SU's Permanent Collection, including those by artisans Elvis and Artro Castillo, visiting artists at the University in October. Original works by the Castillos will be for sale at the exhibit. During their residency, the Castillos will provide demonstratinos and discuss their craft and culture. Woodcarving is a traditional folk art in Mexico, a recent transformation occurred in the state of Oaxaca, creating an interesting cultural fusion.



Read more about the show  []
written by Leah Lewman

During the month of October at the Atrium Gallery, is an exhibition featuring Oaxacan woodcarving—focusing specifically on the two artists Elvis and Arturo Castillo, who will host demonstrations and talks about their art and culture. The exhibition will open on October 3rd, and remain open for viewing until October 26th. This wildly colorful and captivating art form originates in Oaxaca, Mexico, and draws most of its inspiration from native Indian culture and legend.


Generally the works represent figures (animal, human or mythical creatures), in saturated color schemes painted with fine detail. The realm of Oaxacan art is infused with a sort of “magic realism,” which embodies a folkloric-type of surrealism in which “people can fly and mysterious juxtapositions are the norm” [1]. The carved figures that will be on display are typically called “Alebrijes” by most Oaxacan artisans. Copalillo, or copal wood is the most common medium for these sculptures; however, cedar is often used for larger pieces as well.  Copal trees are typically found in the areas in and around Oaxaca, and they vary between two distinct kinds of copal tree—male and female.  The female tree is more ideal for these carvings, as the wood is softer and easier to carve, as well as lacking in some of the distortion and knotted texture that is often found in the male copal tree.

            After the figurine is carved, it must be set outside to fully dry—some Oaxacan artists like to lay their sculptures in the sun, to allow for quicker drying, while others prefer the shade, which they see as more natural and less harsh than exposing the piece directly to sunlight.  Small pieces typically take a day or so to dry, while large ones may need up to one month.  When the wood is completely dry, it may be sanded and coated with gasoline (or any other bug-repellant liquid). The wood is then smoothed out, imperfections are covered, and the first layer of acrylic paint may be applied as a base for further painting.

In the early years of Oaxacan art, artists had great difficulty finding appropriate tools to execute the detail and precision they desired. With time, however, methods and tools began to evolve, creating a well-structured system for producing these delicate carvings. Also, past artisans were more inclined to create multiple carvings that could fit together to form a single sculpture. Contemporary Oaxacan artists tend to create pieces with fewer detachable parts, most likely because of the development of safer and more efficient methods of travel. Materials and methods for the painting have also changed over the years; from using cochineal (a red dye made from a Mexican insect that feeds on cacti) as coloring, to using modern paints; and from using tools fashioned from Maguey thorns, reed chips and toothpicks to using finely crafted paint brushes. Concept and imagery have remained relatively constant, but more variations in color and application have arisen accordingly with artistic vision from artisan to artisan [2].

The exhibition in the Atrium Gallery is focused on modern Oaxacan artists Elvis and Arturo Castillo—who will be visiting and giving artist talks and demonstrations—but the exhibitions also features artists such as Angelico and Isalas Jimenez, J. Luis Soriano, and many others. The brothers’ work has been exhibited since the 1980s, and has become well known on a global scale due to their impressive attention to detail, perpetual progression of style, and their professional, high-quality craftsmanship. Working out of their homes in San Martin Toxpalan, Oaxaca, Mexico, they prefer to only export their work to galleries in the U.S., as opposed to galleries within Mexico.

The Castillos’ work ties into the tradition of Oaxacan carving in many ways, but their work has evolved beyond tradition. They tend to use the conventional copal wood for carving small sculptures, and cedar wood for larger works. After artfully carving and perfecting the figures, they then paint them using acrylic paint in a style similar to pointillism, using tiny, colorful dots.  The amount of detail that is put into the painting of these pieces is truly mesmerizing, and it is hard to capture the full affect in a photograph. Most of the pieces on display are surprisingly small, making the careful coloration and intricate grain of the patterns even more impressive.

Arturo and Elvis use cactus needles to make many of the smallest dot-marks, and for others they use their own hand-made brushes. As many Oaxacan artists do, the Castillos love both nature and animals, and they make substantial efforts to use as few copal trees per year as possible, and to plant many more in their place. Carving is also a time-consuming craft; small pieces take about two hours to carve and five to paint, while large sculptures can take up to eight hours to carve, and twenty-five to paint. Though brothers Arturo and Elvis perform the majority of the carving and painting of these alebrijes, they do occasionally receive help from their family members—namely their father Jaime, their brother Omar, and Arturo's son, Marco. [3] Their wives also contribute to the process.

            Oaxacan art, when seen in person, is certainly an experience unlike any other.  Personally, I found it impossible to walk through the gallery space without cracking a smile more than once or twice. The intoxicating combination of bright color, playful subject matter, delicate pattern and design make it a matchless celebration of the harmony and happiness that can be found in animals and nature.


 [1] "A Magic Reality: Art from Oaxaca, Mexico." Indigo Arts: Tribal Art, Folk Art, Ethnographic Art. Indigo Arts Gallery, 1998. Web. 28 Sept. 2011.

[2] “The Art of Oaxacan Wood Carvings." Oaxacan Wood Carvings Gallery El Caracol Zapoteca. El Caracol Zapoteca, 2009. Web. 28 Sept. 2011.

[3] "Oaxacan ‘Alebrijes’ by Elvis and Arturo Castillo." Elvis and Arturo Castillo. Web. 28 Sept. 2011.