Raúl de Nieves’s El Rio at Company Gallery is totally alien to Western notions of death. Rather than portray it as a grim experience, he creates an almost fantastical environment, turning the aesthetics of morbidity on its head. Plywood collages on the walls read “Renunciation,” “Diligence,” “Justice,” and “Wisdom” in bejeweled text. These generic platitudes remind us of the pensive thoughts that surround death but also its absurdity, reading simultaneously like memento mori and roadside billboards.
The gallery creates an immersive environment with black walls and warm yellow fluorescent lights that highlight the sunlight filtering in through de Nieves’s own creation of faux stained-glass using beads and glass paint. Blooming with beaded sculptures, bedazzled prints, and whimsically layered mannequins, the exhibition’s choice of yellow lighting invites the eye to inspect the silhouettes and intricate pastiche of details in each piece, rather than being overwhelmed by the sheer candy-coated ecstasy of them all. Masked monsters (“Somos Monstros,” 2016) flower from found iron-on patches, plastic jewels, and latticed layers of vintage millinery patches of roses, leaves, golden stars, and pink and white bunny rabbits. It is difficult not to get caught up in the physicality of de Nieves’s works — his piece “Day(Ves) of Wonder” (2007–2016), featured in MoMA PS1’s Greater New York show last year, took him seven years to complete. The craftsmanship evident in each one of these works reflects the amount of time and effort that must have been afforded to amass an exhibition large enough to weave a new reality. El Rio does not latch on a particular identity or set of cultures to view death from, but creates a kaleidoscope of raw material that draws from everyday objects, military apparel, religious worship, and nature. The compost of death provides the resources for life to begin again.
De Nieves does an excellent job of conjuring the fantastical, spiritual, and lofty, while offering us something tangible from our realm. A military backpack covered in fake pearls (“The Journey” 2016) jolts the viewer back to reality while also reimagining the item beyond its use value. Iridescent neon sculptures bubble up from piles of gravel like crystalized coral or clam shapes. These forms are actually shoes covered in beads so meticulously they completely devour any semblance of the shoe’s form. “Celestial” (2014) envelops two shoes in concentric layers of highlighter yellow, orange, and pink tones that undulate upwards towards the viewer like an alien biomorphic form.
There are more pointed references to death, such as the stuffed fox at the center of “Rejoice” (2016) with deflated ears as it sits on driftwood, peering over a bouquet of dried roses. In a smaller annex in the next room, lit by stark white light, 14 taxidermy birds are hung on the wall, some with their heads replaced by a metallic silver mold, all adorned with freshly cultured pearls. The dead animals are some of the more overt references to death, though their sacrificial bodies seem to be given a new life as artworks. The real focus of this room, however, is another long-term project by the artist titled “Celebration” (2008–2016) an installation that amasses de Nieves’s craftsmanship and almost manic impulse to combine, collage, assemble, and destabilize material forms. Iridescent plastic covers the concrete floor under a sea of confetti. A bodily form emerges from a heap of rhinestones, fake jewels, Mardi Gras beads, watches, an empty Corona bottle, and other lustrous detritus. The head rests on the base of a white ladder that extends upward, matching the white gallery wall. At the feet lay two buckets of silver and gold confetti discs like offerings to the gods.
El Rio offers up a psychedelic embodiment of death that is beyond our world and the afterlife as we conceive it, reinterpreting its cyclical nature in a way that gives birth to a new kind of optimism.
Raúl de Nieves: El Rio continues at Company Gallery (88 Eldridge St, 5th Floor, Lower East Side) through July 24.