Raul de Nieves
Conversation held on April 15, 2020
You moved into a new place last fall, so you’ve been going through the quarantine on your own. What’s that been like?
I mean, I’ve seen friends here and there, but yeah, I'm pretty much quarantined alone. It's nice, though. I’m just at home, chilling, painting, relaxing.
It seems like it’s been true for a lot of people, and that’s maybe one of the most interesting things about this past month: even with all of this anxious energy in the world, it's also somehow been a quiet, reflective time.
Right. It's definitely been an adjustment to things, but I’ve had more personal time to do things that I like, or things I’ve had in the back of my mind for a while—or even just to think more, you know? It’s a time to stop and think about things.
So you’ve been able to make work at home?
Yeah, I have a room here that’s like a painting studio or drawing room, so I’ve been working on things there—but my actual studio is only three minutes away, so I can still go there to work on the larger pieces.
What neighborhood are you in?
My place is in Bushwick, by Honey Bar and Mission Chinese.
My friend Robert Janitz had a studio right over there. Do you know him?
Oh yeah, I know Robert! We were in the same building—but he moved to Mexico, right?
Yeah, the week before the quarantine hit.
That’s crazy. Actually, I was in Mexico three weeks before this all went down. For a minute, it was like, “Maybe I should have just stayed there.” [laughs] But I love New York. Who knows what this is going to be like, or how long it’s going to last, but I’m here for the long haul.
Same. Throughout all of this, I’ve felt weirdly connected to the city. It feels like we're all sharing this trauma, but when it's over, there’s going to be this beautiful release. I just feel like I'm going to cry when I see everybody again.
It’s going to be a celebration! Everybody’s going to be out, rumbling in the streets. Oh my god, I can't wait for that.
As far as what you’ve been making, are they things you’d planned to work on anyway? Or have you had to adjust what you're doing in light of the circumstances?
A little of both. Over the past year, I’d been working on these large-scale sculptures for shows that were scheduled for this year but now are postponed. So it's been interesting, because I’ve been getting to the point where I’m finishing things, but then thinking, "Well, maybe I’ll keep working on it, since I have so much more time." It ends up changing the work. I’ve also been using this as a chance to slow down and look more closely at things, to re-experiment with ideas that I’d already started working with.
But you know, a lot of this experience with quarantine goes beyond the work. I’ve been living alone for the past year—I moved into my new place in September of last year—but I feel like I haven’t spent much time here, because I’ve been so busy. So it’s been really cozy in that sense, where I’m just rearranging my furniture, making drawings on the kitchen table, watching movies. That’s really the biggest thing: even with the traumatic state of reality right now, I'm thankful, because I’m being reminded of what I have in my life. Like, I really love my neighborhood; I've been running a lot, and the cemetery is nearby, so I’ll run there. It feels really peaceful, in a way, to go through a place of remembrance, of death, and to find some form of clarity.
It's also nice just to get back in touch with your body. Throughout all of this, I feel like I've been able to pay attention to myself in a way that I hadn't before, where I’m listening to myself: “What do I need at this moment?”
Yeah, definitely—you’re so much more aware right now. I mean, obviously, we're always trying to maintain a level of health, but now we're super-conscious of how we feel, how our bodies move through our environment. But I will say, I really hate having to put on the rubber gloves. [laughs] It's such a not-fun part of my day, because it’s this constant reminder of the actual ugly reality of things. When I put on the gloves and this scary-looking mask, I suddenly realize, "This is happening. This is actually really crazy."
Right! This moment is such a strange combination of feelings: the gentle quietness, but then also this overwhelming, omnipresent sense of danger.
You mentioned earlier that you had some scheduled projects that were postponed in light of COVID—among them was your solo show at ICA Boston, which was set for July. Where do things stand there?
Well, it's really nice, because I’ve developed a relationship with the curator; we talk every Thursday, so it still feels active, like things are moving forward. It’s weird, though, because they still think the museum will open again soon, but I’m not sure how realistic that is. I actually had another show at MOCA Miami that was supposed to open April 21st, and that's been pushed back. But that's a little bit different, because that would be bringing together all these different works that I've done over the past ten years. I’m not having to make anything new for that, so it's really just a matter of coordinating works.
I think the biggest bummer is that I was also going to be involved in that big group show they have at the Highline every year, where they place public sculpture in the park. That was also supposed to be unveiled in April. They're saying that they might not open the park at all this year, depending on the regulations for the amount of people that can be in the space, since the corridors are slightly narrow. So it’s just an interesting moment, where you’ve made the work and now you’re waiting to find out when it might see the light of day.
It’s fine, though. I'm really just trying to think about the abundance, and the whole idea of how this all came to be. I’m trying to find patience. I was talking to my mom today, and I was like, "This is starting to feel kind of normal, in a weird way.” Obviously, it’s not a normal that you want to give into—but at the same time, you have to accept reality.
You can't ignore what’s happening.
Yeah. I just feel like, "I really want to see my friends!" Ugh. It's really hard. I've only hung out with about three friends, in a very rare kind of situation. It’s so not my style; I'm used to going out all the time and being around people, and working hard so I can go and enjoy my freedom. And New York City's the best place to hang out, so it sucks to be apart from everything.
You said you were trying to appreciate abundance. What does that word mean to you?
Well, I think now’s a good time to think about what a word like that means—what a lot of different words mean. When I think about abundance, I think about feeling this sense of joy, or getting help from a friend, or feeling like you've just helped somebody out, or even just smiling at a person on the street, because people seem to be afraid right now to look at each other. I’ve been realizing that life has given me a lot of abundance, and I’ve been feeling that appreciation, even with all of these uncertainties.
I think that's a really healthy way to live in the world.
Yeah. I've always found myself to be very conscious, or even spiritual, in a sense, where my surroundings end up guiding me to wherever I'm supposed to go, or to the decision I’m supposed to make. That's the thing I'm trying to trust with all of this: to go with my instincts, and even in my moments of sadness, really just greet them and be aware of them.
There's a sort of acceptance there, a lack of resistance.
Has that been heightened because of these restrictions?
Well, I keep thinking back to a few months ago, when I knew I was going to have these two shows opening at the same time. In that situation, you're so deep in your thought process that you forget about the things that are happening outside of that. So in a moment like this, when your life is getting shifted, and you realize people are dying, people are losing jobs, all of these struggles are happening—it just burst my little bubble, in a really good way. You remember that life is really about something more. So for me, I feel like this time has allowed for a more conscious way of living, where I’m stepping outside of my world and experiencing things in another way.
You mentioned that for the MOCA Miami show, you’d be combining past bodies of work. How easily do you feel like your older and more recent pieces can be shown alongside each other? Do works from each era require different kinds of explanations, different kinds of presentations?
Actually, I think they go together really well. I feel like there are three very important parts to what I do: my painting of St. George and the Dragon, my beaded shoes, and my performances with the beaded works. I've always been making things along the same ideas; now things have just grown into a larger scale. When I show them in exhibitions, it’s nice to see the larger pieces
still become very intimate—and I think it’s because there’s a core, a common place where all of the work has evolved from. Even my show in Boston is derived from works that I made in 2007: there's these collages, which were based around some older drawings, which I've taken and duplicated to create a new image. I’m constantly thinking about the idea of a circle, where it’s all about continuation. I also feel like a lot of the things that I do are really personal, based around things that have influenced my life, and that's something that comes through in what I make.
The function of autobiography is such an interesting aspect of your practice. You’ve talked elsewhere about your work being, at least in part, a reflection of your heritage, your upbringing in Mexico—the street performers who would take on characters and enact stories in beautiful handmade costumes built from modest materials; the colors; the sense of community and celebration.
Yeah, absolutely. That’s such an important part of it.
There's definitely that element of personal history—but at the same time, it also seems like the work is so much about creating new characters, new narratives, going beyond yourself in order to inhabit new roles and create new experiences for yourself and for others. Along those lines, to what extent is the work a kind of self-mirror, and to what extent is it about something broader?
I think it's both. When I started making work, I was reaching more to my upbringing in Mexico, which I still feel is something really kind of magical. My mom has always been, and still is, such a huge part of my life, and she introduced me to this idea of labor as a form of love, which has really informed everything I do. It's allowed me to use these simple gestures to create all these characters who continue this narrative. It’s all about working towards a new understanding of the self.
Looking at your work, it seems like there’s a subjective version of the self, based in personal and cultural experience, but also the suggestion of this deeper, almost universal self, something less autonomous, part of a greater whole, which is maybe the more difficult one to reach.
Right. I think of it as a challenge, something we're all constantly trying to get to. It's really interesting to be able to create things that connect to me, but then share them with the world; that process allows me to see a different side of things, gives me the perspective of appreciation. Really, it’s all about acceptance, but it takes work to get to that point. Even now,
in this moment, I'm learning things about myself that I wasn't aware of. In a way, I think being so influenced by my own culture—and maybe even more than that, by the idea of a sustained culture—creates this kind of vulnerable way of making work. You realize you have to show yourself before other people will feel comfortable showing themselves, too.
In my upbringing, the street was the place where you showed your true self. Things weren’t hidden—they were shared. Even with something like food: in my culture, food is something you share with people; everyone ends up eating on the street, appreciating that person's gift for cooking. Everyone's experiencing the same thing. It’s the same for artisans doing weavings. For me, making work is something similar: you’re creating something on your own, celebrating this inner self, but you know that others are able to experience and appreciate that, too, which allows it to become something communal, something bigger.
Exactly. For me, as a kid growing up in the punk scene, the most important thing was the act of sharing: giving what you’ve made to other people and forming an ongoing conversation with your peers. You’d do something that affects them, they’d do something that affects you, and over time, you’d evolve together in a similar direction.
I get the same feeling from what you do. I see your live performances almost like a form of communion: you're in a shared public space, you’re making room for all of these different notions of the self—yours and everyone else’s—and you throw it all together and merge it, which allows you to experience this wholeness, this more universal form of self, for a period of time. It's beautiful, but it’s also ephemeral, something temporary.
Up until this February, my studio had always been this kind of show-workspace; obviously, I had a door that I could close, but it was this really activated space, taking on the energies of so many different people. That, to me, was something so inspiring, but it wasn’t something I created. I feel like my life slowly just pushed me in that direction naturally—and that's maybe where it goes back to thinking about what abundance really entails. When you allow yourself to become aware of abundance, it guides you to this nurturing place where you’re able to grow and understand more, and that ends up creating a community. You get in touch with yourself, but you also see how other people are living. You know, it sounds funny, but in a way, the thing that I've been missing most through this whole experience has just been going to bars and talking, feeling inspired by the people around me. I’ve been realizing how important that really is.
I know what you mean. On both individual and societal levels, it seems like we're stripping away a lot of layers right now, recognizing how much of it was unnecessary, even harmful—but we’re also realizing how important simple things can be. It feels necessary right now to acknowledge the beauty that's inherent to the details of our lives: our families, our friends, our communities, our environments. I think when you’re able to do that, you become full, and you can bring that to your experience of the world. You’re literally full of life, so you're not trying to fill this weird, invisible void with something else. You’re available, you’re willing to be vulnerable. That’s really the energy that we’ll need moving forward. That way, when the doors open up again, we’ll be well-equipped to reassess, redistribute our energy and resources, and rebuild in a meaningful way.
I think so, too. At first, this whole situation was such a hard thing to fall into—but I think once I removed myself, things really became a little bit more realistic. It almost needed to happen, in a way. I often think about facing fear as being the root of growth. Obviously, right now we’re all feeling this fear, dealing with issues of life and death and health, but I think at the end of this, people (including myself) won't take so many things for granted. I hope we’ll all end up being more aware and more appreciative, more present.
You’ve already been dealing with these broad spiritual narratives and acts of storytelling as an artist, and it’s obvious those things are really important to you. Do you feel like the work itself serves as a metaphor or stand-in for a way of being, of living in the world?
I feel like I'm always working in a “mantra” kind of way. It’s something to do with intention and repetition. The bead work can get that way. I also feel like that’s why I started painting St. George and the Dragon on such a constant basis. I relate to that image because I feel like it talks to this problem of “self.” It’s all about being dissolved in a personal way, just stepping back and acknowledging a different side of reality that you're kind of aware of, but have maybe been ignoring.
I’m glad St. George came up, because I’ve always been curious about what first drew you to that story, and what’s made you keep returning to it, time and again.
Well, St. George was actually presented to me by a stranger, so with that image, I feel like it was a gift from someone that’s actually become this great source of inspiration. As a queer gay person, trying to fit into norm society, or thinking about religion, and having this feeling of not being understood, I felt like this story, this image, was so universal in what it says about how to face a problem.
I actually don't know much about St. George’s story. What happens?
Well, there’s the biblical version, which is this basic story about Good and Evil, and then there’s the folkloric version passed down by word of mouth. But basically there’s this dragon that's hovered over a vessel of water that feeds this small town. A communication begins between the town hierarchy and this creature, but the dragon is asking for other things in return for water—and at some point, the hierarchy realizes that maybe the dragon is this agent of change, there to transform the way we think. So they spread this idea that the dragon is something that people should fear. Nobody knows what this dragon really looks like; the people in town are just told to be afraid of it. Eventually, St. George comes to defeat this dragon, but it turns out the dragon is actually a very small wizard, like a small snake. So St. George brings this snake back to the town and says, "This is what you've been told to be afraid of"—and it’s actually just this small animal. So in a way, it’s about realizing that maybe the best thing to do is to get to know your fear, instead of feeding the fear without understanding what it is. That's the narrative that I truly relate to. Like I said, this was presented to me by someone else, and it happened at a point in my life where I was vulnerable to some specific fears. So having this story, this icon, helped me think about them more, to meditate on them and actually read them as a force of creation. That's really how I started painting. The story of St. George helped me understand that there's not just one fear, there's multiple fears—but the more you can become friends with them, the stronger you can be. I just feel like that’s a really good model for going through life.
You’ve been outspoken about the spiritual connotations in your work—discussing your performances in terms of ritual, your exhibitions in terms of creating sacred spaces, drawing on religious iconography. In a way, it’s interesting, and maybe counterintuitive, that you’re exploring these notions of universality and emotional presence, even spirituality, within the narrows of contemporary art—particularly here in New York, where the discourse visibly seems to shy away from topics like these.
Yeah. It’s definitely not the norm.
Obviously, there are any number of art histories an artist might reference, including and beyond the usual Western narratives. You weren’t formally trained, and by your own account weren’t exposed to much contemporary art growing up, be it in Mexico or the United States. Still, I wonder to what extent you feel like your work’s informed by or indebted to some kind of art historical precedence. Are there any particular lineages or visual
traditions that have offered you a set of parameters to work within? Or is it more of an open approach, where you’re making whatever decisions feel natural to you?
It’s definitely all about doing what feels natural, but I think what's given me that freedom is the fact that I’ve really honed down on this continuous narrative within my work. Obviously, by dissecting a religious fable and bringing it into my own trajectory, I'm working with some very established archetypes, some very traditional ways of making art, understanding art, storytelling. But I like that idea—not in the sense of having some inherited rules to follow, but more in having these structures that guide the process and create a larger context. It goes back to this idea of finding some ultimate reflection of the self: even though my journey is my own, I can still acknowledge something beyond myself, something bigger or greater. That’s really what gives me a sense of joy, and this sense of personal freedom to create—it’s because I still feel grounded. I feel like using archetypes allows the work to reverberate, allows for a deeper sense of communication. It’s culture. So having an appreciation for that, in terms of storytelling, allows me to continue to experiment but still feel very connected.
I feel like our decisions as artists are always relative and personal, but in the end, we're all trying to get to the same place. In your case, I get the sense that your work is coming from a strong, personal viewpoint, but at the same time, that’s precisely why you’ve felt so confident in inhabiting these theatrical, performative settings, allowing for all these different forms of narrative to co-exist: it’s because you're not afraid of those outside perspectives challenging your own. You’re more interested in how they might inform or enhance each other.
Still, the setting—the “theater,” the arena of experience—does hold some level of influence. In looking at how your practice has evolved, from early performances at spaces like Live With Animals and Secret Project Robot, and even shows with your band, Hairbone, to now, where you’re working in museum settings, I wonder how you’ve translated this approach, this energy, to settings that might be more rigid, less permissive. Have you had to adjust your presentation to reflect a different environment, a new audience?
To be honest, that has been a challenge at times. Overall, it’s been fine, but I do feel like some of my bolder projects maybe don’t come across the same way. It’s also interesting to see how, when you start working with these larger institutions, the process becomes more of an active collaboration instead of a personal presentation. Like, when I did the Whitney Biennial, the curator came with these specific ideas: "We think you should do this and this. We see your
work as this giant thing." And I was like, "Oh, really? Wow! I guess I should try to do that. I’ve never had this platform!” [laughs] Then, of course, it's like, "Oh my god, what did I just say yes to?" But I also feel like that’s a really important part of growing, and allowing the work to grow, too. With those DIY spaces, I was given total freedom to be creative, which was amazing. Now, I still feel like I have the space to be creative, but it’s incorporating a larger perspective, like we were saying. That's actually really inspiring, because it takes me out of my comfort zone. It can actually help you be bolder, because somebody else is allowing you to shine within this new platform. So it goes both ways. I just think that's the beauty of allowing things to grow organically.
I feel like that’s the balance we’re all trying to strike: how to foster a sense of community, to reveal yourself and be open to exchange—and, thus, open to change—while still retaining this sense of self, acknowledging the things that define your individual experience.
Yeah! Honestly, presenting certain works, or even having a conversation like the one we’re having now, sometimes I’m like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m putting all of this out there.” It’s a vulnerable feeling. But I approach it in the same way as when I’m doing a performance: I'm channeling this deeper side of myself that maybe I don’t access every day, but which I know is enduring and which I feel inspired by. To be able to have these conversations, to allow myself to have people see me in this other way—I think it's really exciting and really important. I'm constantly searching for other ways to grow, to be able to share these thoughts and find a sense of acceptance, even within myself. I think that's what life is all about. The process of finding this sense of love, this feeling of abundance, is a constant give and take. It’s always being shared and exchanged.
Photographs by Hannah Metz