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Q&A: Artist Raúl de Nieves talks about preciousness, passion, and process

Until recently, artist Raúl de Nieves was perhaps best known for his colorful, crystal-like beaded shoe sculptures. Now, he's garnering major-league art world attention with larger works in high-profile exhibitions such as MoMA PS1's latest edition of "Greater New York" and the 2017 Whitney Biennial, where he's installed a gallery-spanning faux stained-glass window. He's the subject of a recent Art21 documentary but is still a down-to-earth regular fixture in the Brooklyn/Queens DIY queer community—collaborating with performance artists, designers, and musicians.

I chatted with de Nieves ahead of his upcoming talk this Tuesday at the Baltimore School For the Arts through the Contemporary's CoHosts series, in which the artist is selected by Terrault Contemporary. We touched on process, the idea of "preciousness," growing up Catholic, and more.

City Paper: So what can we expect from your presentation through The Contemporary?

Raúl de Nieves: I'm not really sure. I am going to show some video, and I think people expect me to talk about my Whitney piece. So something along those lines, and maybe explaining the process, the meaning, and the experience. Usually when I give talks I just try to feel the space. I treat them differently than I would a normal conversation. But I'm not going to go in there with some bizarre experiment! I'm a simple person. I don't like to bullshit things. I'm really excited, because this is a new experience for me—I've given talks at schools before, but nothing this big. I'm excited to see what happens.

I'm so excited to come to Baltimore. It's always been this place I've wanted to spend time, and I'm so grateful for an opportunity to just be able to talk to people and connect with other artists. I really don't want to be the one doing all the talking… I want people to ask questions! I want a conversation between all of us.

CP: Well you have a background as a performer, right?

RDN: Yeah, I started out as a performer in my youth. That's what gave me the language my work derives from—what I expand upon. I started out as just this punk musician playing in local bands with my friends. From there I realized how important it is to just be in front of other people—to have these moments where people are letting you become another entity of yourself. 

CP: In a weird way, I sense a performative nature to your visual work as well. It's so process-based and labor-intensive that the objects almost feel like the index of an extended performance. Which is interesting, because usually very craft-oriented objects evoke the idea of "the introverted artist" slaving away alone in a studio. But your sculptures feel so gregarious and outgoing.

RDN: My studio is in the Spectrum [a queer performance venue/studio space formerly based in Brooklyn, now in Queens], where I'm surrounded by other artists. It's amazing. I've been friends with Gage [Boone, founder of the Spectrum] for years. It's so great to work in a community—especially that community. I mean, it's a space that's open to everyone, but it's nice to have a place focused around queer youth.

And, well, my work is made for the purpose of people to experience it. I want them to have a form with function—to be a thing that can be in performances, or just everyday life—I want people to be active with my pieces. 

CP: Wait, are your shoe sculptures [often towering, crystal-like accumulations of beads] actually wearable?

Yeah they are! Well, not like you'd wear them around the city or go for a walk in the woods, but I use them in performances, and they get other forms of attention. People always ask to borrow them for photoshoots, for example. To me that's so interesting. I always want objects to have a new life—different forms of life.

CP: I often think about your sculpture "Days(Ves) of Wonder," in PS1's "Greater New York" exhibition. It was installed in that weird "hall of figuration" gallery and really stood out against all the other pieces. I think I read somewhere that you spent seven years making that?

RDN: Yes, definitely! It was something I really wanted to accomplish. I was making my footwear sculptures and always wanted to imagine what it would look like to have a whole being grow out of the shoes. The reason it took me seven years--and it's not like I was working on it every single day for seven years straight--was that I had to put the thing away at times in order to understand where it wasn't working, or why it was failing. But there was never a sense of giving up. It was almost like the mistakes would teach me where I had to grow more, or put more emphasis on parts of the sculpture that weren't really working. I took that experience as a very personal thing. How often do people spend that amount of time trying to figure out how to glue beads together to form something that's recognizable to the eye as a figure? But then again, be its own thing. And I really wanted it to be its own thing. To me, why else make work?

It's about figuring out forms that can communicate something in a new way—establish new relationships. I always think about making artwork as a personal relationship that I'm having with this non-human.

To me that's romantic—to have a relationship with something that doesn't have a sense of life until you activate it with your own energy. People tend to gravitate to things where they can sense a story. It's like becoming friends with a rock! I mean, I do collect rocks and crystals. Sometimes I bring my favorite crystal out to a party in case it has some sort of magic. 

CP: I love that about your work. You're able to transform these sort of mundane objects (craft store beads, old shoes, etc…) into something that feels very precious. It's a strange alchemy. I've only seen a handful of your sculptures in real life, but they have this aura you seem to have instilled in them through sheer caring. Does that make sense?

RDN: That's very true. I think that's why, when I decided to make sculptures, the first things I gravitated towards were things I was supposed to discard, like broken shoes. In a way, they had so much sentimental value that only an individual can create—you know, wearing something for years and remembering a day or specific experience… It made me want to imagine this thing creating the next stage of its life. You could call them relics, but that's not quite right. They're still organic, and I'm letting them accumulate new complexities through time—moving, growing, shifting.

There's a connection between religious art and contemporary art—being able to understand how a human transcends time. I'm trying to figure out why there are icons in front of us. Why have they survived all these years? Why do we still care about them? Why do we worship these tiny pieces of hair, or whatever?

CP: Ha! I take it you grew up Catholic too?

RDN: Yeah! You know what? I actually still go to church sometimes. It's not that I care what these people have to say about anything, but there's something comforting about being in that space. It reminds me of my childhood.

But I do like to think there's some kind of "higher power." I don't know if that's a "god" or just our own minds, once they figure out how to become one with one another. I think that happens when we realize that, as individuals, we're not the most important things on the Earth. To me, the world we leave behind means more—our surroundings, architecture, art. 

CP: I see that in your work—a desire to imbue objects or a place with some kind of non-disposable "specialness." That's perhaps less central to so much contemporary art? I think the dominant trend is to resist the notion of preciousness.

RDN: Oh yeah, I often think of how vast and fast-moving the world is now. I mean, I spent seven years making one sculpture. From the time I started it to the time I finished it, two iPhones had become obsolete because they're pieces of shit! Even though they're supposed to be these precious objects. But that's how things are made now—fast, fast, fast. I don't move at that speed. 

To me, that's what art's all about. Whether it's making a mark on a white canvas or whatever, it's an attempt to transcend the self and time. Maybe people think I'm crazy? Like, "Oh my god! Why would he spend so long doing this?" But to me the question is "Why not?"

And I'm not even an obsessive person! I just have passion.

Raúl de Nieves will be speaking at the Baltimore School for the Arts (712 Cathedral Street) from 7-9 p.m. on Tuesday, May 30th. Free tickets are available here, and doors close at 6:45 p.m.

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