BOSTON — The sculptures and collages of Raúl de Nieves are a kaleidoscope of reference points — to his Mexican heritage, Catholicism, the European canon of art history, drag culture and vogueing, craft, and kitsch. The brightly colored three-dimensional assemblages on the walls reward deep looking to read and decipher their references. In his solo show at the ICA Boston, The Treasure House of Memory, the list of materials for one circular work, “The Leap Into the Sun” (2021), includes wood, an aluminum frame, nails, vintage postcards, plastic toys, fake flowers, and acrylic paint. Draped in rosaries with a recurring motif of crosses, the works in this exhibition are expressions of worship, altars to the artist’s inspirations and interests, abstracted through collage.
De Nieves spent his early childhood in Mexico, influenced by Catholicism, folklore, and the celebratory qualities of funerals that featured dancing, masks, and beaded costumes. His artwork blends these aspects of his upbringing with his queer identity. He creates richly beaded works that unite Mexican craft traditions with contemporary drag culture, showing the notion of identity to be an amalgamation of influences, made rather than determined.
Walking through the single-gallery exhibition is much like entering a dancehall. It requires careful choreography to avoid bumping into the writhing human-horse hybrid statues, frozen in various stages of handstands and flips, their high-heeled shoes gleaming in the air and arched in motion. These energetic statues, installed in the center of the gallery, set the tone of the show. The large wall-mounted works radiate the same frenetic energy, but they are embedded with European art historical references. Woven between the paper butterflies, fake flowers, and rosaries are the edges of Picasso paintings and black and white MC Escher-like geometric patterns.
At first, these references are hard to discern, abstracted to the point that they blend into the background. But once noticed, they can be seen in many of the works, recurring homages to another set of influences. They are most visible in “Who Would We Be Without Our Memories” (2017-21), a 105-by-207-inch work on the back wall. The dense black and white patterns serve as the background, while paper butterflies and feathers adorn the surface in the foreground and Picasso’s nude women, cut into triangular slices and pasted in curving shapes, wind paths across the work. From a distance the piece has a map-like appearance, charting the artist’s favorites. The title echoes this, highlighting how past memories and influences impact present identity. It is worth noting that the piece also includes de Nieves’s 2017 Whitney Biennial artist badge and a reproduction of the work he showed in it, now in the Whitney’s collection, a testament to his own growing place in this history.
Like the human-animal hybrids, many of the works on view evoke transformation, such as the kitschy butterflies affixed to the wall works. Often a symbol of transformation, butterflies also symbolize Mexico, where they migrate in the winter. The title of the show indicates that all of these works act in some way as emblems of the past. De Nieves suggests that, like his collage and assemblage, we are not just one thing or another, but an amalgamation, transforming, always in a state of becoming.
Raúl de Nieves: The Treasure House of Memory continues at the ICA Boston (25 Harbor Shore Drive, Boston, Massachusetts) through July 24. The exhibition was organized by Jeffrey De Blois, Assistant Curator and Publications Manager at the ICA Boston.