In the tribal cultures of New Guinea, an adolescent boy will be arrayed in the most elaborate paint and finery, singing as he approaches death. Among the Aztecs, the highest honor to which one could attain was to be sacrificed to the deity so that one’s people could thrive. Raul De Nieves examines our own rejection of death with curiosity and satire. He proceeds to rephrase the meaning of death, not as an antithesis of life, but as one of its most ecstatic mysteries.
The River from which the exhibition derives its name encompasses a force of nature to which creation and destruction are equally essential. The river gives life and fortifies all life forms. And yet it corrupts, erodes, floods and kills just as naturally. To nature, as to the cosmos, creation and destruction coexist as an efficient and necessary duality. Why then does the prevailing ideology banish death to the realm of the morbid?
In El Rio, De Nieves observes the patterns of nature alien to our terrestrial sphere. The river serves as a portal to the trials of life rejected to the subconscious. The exhibition traces obscure geometry in patterns of growth and color found in nature ranging through the avian, fungal, aquatic, and visceral. Sculptures re-model the processes of crystallization with humor and grandeur. Paintings unfold in triptychs beside masked figures posing like boogey men, indulging in our culture’s reappropriations of natural structures to suit its manic obsessions with apparel, religion, and warfare.
De Nieves’ range of shoe sculptures encompasses designs of molecular structure combined with the excesses of nightlife. The artist uses fashion as a transformative tool by his signature craftsmanship. Through their intricacy, the subterranean and unknowable become comical in the shifting quality of molten ores. Their tentacles rise in expansive spires that are at once regenerative and self-destructive.
Monstrous costumes dominate the recesses of the gallery. Menacing and ridiculous, they pose as saints or assassins clad in pearly leathers. Their underlayers reveal bizarre biological folds wrought meticulously in brocade trims. Military uniforms are bestowed with arabesques of pearls, like the eggs of an octopus. They sublimate the despair of warfare with the holiness of rebirth.
Despite the grave themes addressed in El Rio, its broad range of work converges with an air that it unmistakably celebratory. As though in a spirit of rejoicing, the very things we are conditioned to fear are intended to be embraced, befriended, and integrated.
RAUL DE NIEVES (b. Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico, 1983) is a multi-media artist, performer, and musician based in Brooklyn, New York. His body of work encompasses narrative painting, decadent multimedia performance (often with his band Haribo), large-scale figurative sculpture, live music, ornamentally crafted shoes, and garments. De Nieves has exhibited widely, including at Mendes Wood DM (Sao Paulo), MoMA Ps1, The Museum of Art and Design, Rod Bianco (Oslo), Shoot the Lobster, and elsewhere. He has also performed at Artists Space, BOFFO, The Kitchen, MoMA Ps1, Performa 13, Real Fine Arts, and numerous other venues. In 2015, he was included in Ps1’s Greater New York.