Raúl de Nieves: I challenge fear and all the systems

Craft and spiritualism come together in Raúl de Nieves’ sculptures, portraying his sense of wonderment. SLEEK visits his Brooklyn studio to find out more about his practice.

Raúl de Nieves’ multimedia work turns the everyday into fantastical experiences overflowing with love, comedy and promise for a better tomorrow. His studio, affectionately named the “cave of dreams”, is a windowless room in the basement of the Dreamhouse, a multipurpose space for artists and performers in Brooklyn. 2017 has been a good year for the 33-year-old Mexican-American, whose opera, “The Fool”, in collaboration with Colin Self, debuted at The Kitchen to critical acclaim in February. In April he was featured in NYMag, and is now one of the more acclaimed artists at this year’s Whitney Biennial, which features his largest installation to date. Moreover, de Nieves is showing no signs of slowing down: he has two solo shows opening in late autumn plus a handful of residencies, including a stay on Mykonos.

Glueing crocheted roses to a silken, lilac ribbon, he describes his daily routine where he “listens to metal [music, while] making bridal shoes for the queen of fantasy in the cave of dreams.” The piece he is working on will be used in an upcoming performance, he says, and like many of the sculptures in his studio, it started out as a shoe.

“I want simplicity to be a drive, to be a driving force” – Raùl de Nieves

The New York artist loves to impress on his viewers a sense of his own wonderment about the world. As he walks around his studio, he points to a group of bucket-sized glistening crystals, made from hundreds of tiny plastic beads, saying: “That’s a shoe, and that’s a shoe! That’s a shoe too!” Occasionally he pauses, gesturing as if to suggest,“But how much of this is a shoe?” And it is this question that’s at the heart of his practice, whereby he reincarnates discarded or used objects, transforming the mundane into magical objects imbued with glee and fantasy. Combining sculpture, performance and painting, de Nieves creates experiences that remind his viewers that everything just might be OK. He believes that the collective conscious is suffering from an infectious negativity that culminates in fear, and that this fear is a weapon used by the media and powers at large to make us feel weak.

“I don’t go to church but I pray to God. I love the angels. I say thanks when I pray” – Raùl de Nieves

When asked, de Nieves notes that he is most afraid of “a giant rock falling on [his] head”. Though he doesn’t know when or where this boulder will appear, he knows that “it is going to fall”. De Nieves hopes his work can combat this crippling dread with a radical positivity, and aims at encouraging others. Raul’s vision for a better world is implicit in his Biennial installation, where he transformed the billboard-sized windows into a faux stained glass masterpiece made from plastic film, tape and paper. Inviting audience members to sit and meditate on the words ‘peace’, ‘love’, ‘truth’, ‘justice’, ‘harmony’ and ‘unity’, his altar-like installation was an oasis of calm at the event. “We shouldn’t be afraid to see [those] words,” he muses.

“Fear is something that I question. I challenge it and all the systems” – Raùl de Nieves

The artist is also unabashedly spiritual and does not shy away from religious references. “I don’t go to church,” he says, “but I pray to God every day. I love the angels. I say thanks when I pray.” He notes that everything is a joint creative process between himself, his community and the vast unknown. He often receives materials as gifts from strangers and charities, and interprets this as a sign from the universe that he should just keep making art, because that is what he has always done. “Do you see this stuff?” he exclaims, holding one of the beads scattered throughout his atelier. “They just give it to me!”

Whether sewing costumes, encrusting objects in beads or making stained glass out of plastic and tape, de Nieves’ hand is always present in his creations. He has no assistants, and when asked about star-artists like Koons and Hirst, he simply states: “I don’t think like the idea [of having assistants]; I want to have a certain intimacy with my work”. When admiring Nieves’ work closely, this intimacy is made evident through its intricacy – a skill he has honed with years of relentless production. “Without dedication there is nothing else,” he says about his outlook on life and art.

Rachel MacLean
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