Raul de Nieves

When we think about across the board creative talent, the Brooklyn-based artist, Raul de Nieves, is one of the first artists that comes to mind. He builds elaborate costumes, paints ornamented paintings, and constructs beautiful embellished sculptures that sometimes can be worn as shoes. He recently wrote, designed, and directed the opera, "The Fool," with Colin Self. Originally on view at Issue Project Room, it will soon open again at The Kitchen. He performs in the "heavy metal" band Haribo, and there’s really nothing else like it. Every performance is captivating and completely unlike the last. We met up with him at his show "El Rio" at Company Gallery where we did a walk through and discussed the different narratives and themes that exist in his work. When leaving an old woman came up to him and said, “I’ve been going to art shows all my life, and this is something else.”

Can you tell us about your exhibition "El Rio" at COMPANY Gallery? What is the narrative behind the pebble encrusted shoes?

The sculptures on the floor, embellished with pebbles, are shoes I have worn. They have since evolved into creatures - relics. Rather than throwing them away, I thought about how much  time I spent wearing them, and how close they were to me. Why should I just throw them away? The shoes were my first form of creating sculpture. The reason why I chose the shoe is because the shoe is a form of balance to the body. It traces a character. Each shoe represents a different character or a different moment of my life.


And the costumes?

From then on I started to create more elaborate pieces like these costumes that have been worn in performances. Now they are here as guardians of the temple. I wanted this show to feel like the inside of a cave or a grotto. That’s why we painted the gallery black and have artificial yellow lighting. Also, a lot of these costumes have been worn in my musical projects.


The panels on the wall look familiar. Are they from "The Fool"?

The panels on the wall are from "The Fool," the opera I did with Colin Self at Issue Project Room. The phrases on the pieces were part of the last poem. In this moment the old woman is afraid of what is next to come. The story starts out with the child being afraid of what is going to happen next. He speaks to his mother while they are sitting on the side of a cliff, and he keeps saying that he is afraid to let go. He doesn’t know what that means, and she doesn’t know what he is afraid of. She tells him to, “Just go.” When the character lets go, he morphs into an older person who is having the same issues of letting go. This time they are letting go of their physical life, and they have no one to talk to but their dog. The dog in "The Fool" morphs into a human. He explains to the old woman that because of her wisdom the dog is next to her and because of her diligence the dog is alive. She took great care of him, and her mind is eternal. Her body is now, but her mind is eternal.  When you think about history and people who have passed away, the memory of them never disappears. You die, but the memory of you continues. That is how I treat all of my work.


What stories exist in your paintings?

These paintings depict one of my favorite icons. I revisit this image so much because it is always in front of me. Everywhere I go I seem to stumble upon St. George slaying the dragon. The story of St. George is pretty comical. It is almost a fairy tale. It is based on a saint who flights Lucifer when he falls from Heaven. The dragon in these images portrays fear implanted in the systems of hierarchy. The dragon in the story is maniacal and scary. He rests over where the city gets water from, so they start having this conversation of give and take.  The dragon supposedly wants more of the crops, and the crops come out of the hierarchy of beings, and his demands creep up the pyramid until he reaches the humans. The humans start to be put in a lottery system, and they sacrifice themselves. We all sacrifice ourselves in one way or another, so this image helps me think about things. These paintings become my personal mantra. I try to figure out whether I’m the dragon, the saint, the city, the horse, or the story. I personally think I fall into all of these categories. Once the saint goes to defeat the dragon, it turns out that he is only a little snake. He is a small creature, but everyone was so afraid to confront him. They built him up to be a monster, and St. George drags the dragon back to the city and sacrifices the dragon in front of everyone. This is when he decides what comes next. He asks, “Now that I am the hero, should you listen to me?” This image is something that I have been working on since 2004, and these are the larger images. I’ve painted several others, but I don’t have those in my possession anymore. These are the last ones I have. They are all in different styles. I draw the outline of the horse, snake, or the dragon and I grid them out. I try to find something that can relate in each of them, but I wanted this to be like three different people painted the same image. It's like a school exercise.

Who is this fox? What is your interest in taxidermy?

This fox’s name is Rejoice. These objects carry so much energy inside of them.  It's all conceptually the same. Why does death have to be the last thing? What does it mean when someone stuffs an animal back into a realistic form? What is our obsession with holding onto things? How morbid would it be to keep your love one next you after they pass?

Where did you get the taxidermy?

I get these on the Internet. Notice he has the same pearls that are placed throughout the show.

Speaking of pearls, who is the military figure covered in pearls?  

I don't know what it is like to have the courage to be the hero. I am not trying to make a point about politics or the military, but I think to be that person requires so much. I don’t know what it is  like to go to war and know you are taking someone's life for the act of freedom. If freedom means that we have to erase people, I don't think its freedom, and the pearls symbolize a cultivation of something new from another living form. The  backpack is the journey. It carries weight. You put your personal belongings in it, and it is still like the spider. It is a form of fear, but are we supposed to be afraid? I  am. And maybe this is why he has such a maniacal smile. I think all the horrors that are being done right now. People getting their hands on machines that are used for war purposes. That is where it all started. We are trying to live our freedom or escape our reality through more death.

By combining celebratory and funerary imagery, the show seems like an ode to the victims of the Miami shooting.

Its really crazy what is happening right now. I don't want to feel hopeless, but sometimes I feel like we have too much hope or too much freedom. What is this freedom? That anyone can use their madness to project their own person fears? It is really out of control, and that is where this military person comes into the picture. Who made this possible? Human society.  We are the ones that made that possible.

You have  a dark room and a light room. What is the significance of the second, lighter space?

The second room is about the beauty of  not knowing what is next and where it could be. There is something beautiful behind the door. Maybe I will get to hang out with my dad who is not here. Maybe I will get to party with Salvador Dali!  This is a figure I try to portray like my mom or my brother, and she is made out of Mardi Gras beads which signifies a big party celebration and consumption. There are all of these watches on her because time is always ticking. It is your friend and your worse enemy. The ladder leads into the unknown.

Who are the birds?

The birds on the wall are soldiers. Each one is really beautiful. I wanted to work with birds. I found this woman who does this type of taxidermy in the Netherlands. These birds can’t be stuffed properly, so she has a technique where the birds are floppy. Birds can fly. They can walk and skip through water. They can be kept as pets, or they can be free. There are so many types, and they sing every morning.

How does the chandelier play into the exhibition?

This is called "It's My Party and I Will Cry if I Want to". I think every year we desire more. The chandelier is really gaudy. Its an overly joyous birthday cake. There’s always the thought, “I want my cake to be bigger!” You have a birthday party and think, “This is the worst birthday party I have ever had!” Then you are like, “Oh my God! Now this is different.” Obviously this is a form of gluttony. I go out. I party, drink, and celebrate but there is a balance in life you have to figure out.

Was religion  a big part in your life growing up?

It was and it wasn't. We went to church, and Sunday was the day the family hung out and ate together. It is really interesting now because when I was growing up, my mom wasn't very religious, but now the older she becomes, the more religious she gets, and I don't know if that is something incorporated with aging.  I know that I am very spiritual. I pray every day and do the sign of the cross when I exit my house every morning, but I don't know if I believe in institutionalized religion. I had this conversation with my mom and we kind of got into a tiff because she didn't like that I believed you could worship the World and not just God. I do love going into churches, and I like that religion unifies people in certain ways, but I do not believe everything they have to say. When I was a kid I went to a youth school because my friends were going, and I wanted to hang out with my friends and go to Magic Mountain. The pastor told me three times that I was going to hell. I was 11 years old. How could this person, who is  spreading the word of God... how could they tell me, a child, that I was going to hell? Religion can play the part of the clown. This dragon we believe in is the fear of heaven and hell. The first images of artworks I saw were through the Church, so that imagery is really important to me. Also I do like how you go into a space and worship a statue. It's like finding a mirror that isn't the mirror in your bathroom. Looking into an object and finding something more than what it is manifesting inside of it.

How does nightlife inspire the work?

Nightlife plays into a lot.  When you go out, you try to be a different character. Glamorize yourself. I love overly exaggerated looks. Nightlife plays a lot in these work because it's a place where you go to escape your problems, overly indulge, and celebrate. You come together with strangers and feel safe. If you walk into a bar by yourself, and there is a chance you can walk out with another person. I like to keep my themes simple. I don't want to overcomplicate the work.