In Studio with Raúl de Nieves: Whitney Biennial's Nightlife-Inspired Standout

Raúl de Nieves
Photography: Ricardo Nelson

Raúl de Nieves is hesitant to call this his moment—even if Vogue recently speculated that his contribution to the Whitney Biennial would be the most Instagrammed part of the exhibition. The 33-year-old queer artist chalks that up to the multifaceted nature of his work. 

“When I thought about the piece, there were so many ways of how to see it,” he says of the 50-foot, floor-to-ceiling mural he created with everyday materials (glue, tape, beads, paper, wood) that somehow suggests stained glass. “You walk into it, and it becomes a cathartic moment.”

Born in Mexico, de Nieves settled in San Diego with his family when he was 9. As a teen he was exposed to the city’s thriving punk-rock scene, which sparked a passion for performance that would lead him all the way to Bushwick, Brooklyn, where he immersed himself in its avant-garde drag world. “I love the idea of self-adornment,” de Nieves says. “I was always fascinated by this idea that you could transform and become different characters. Nightlife gives you that opportunity. You go out and you present yourself as your inner goddess.”

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His sculptures, including those now on view at the Whitney, double as costumes that de Nieves has worn in his shows at the Brooklyn drag festival Bushwig and in The Fool, a four-act chamber opera he created with the artist Colin Self and premiered at The Kitchen. On a folding table in his Flushing, N.Y., studio, beneath a queer arts space called the Dreamhouse, is one of his latest pieces, a cheap violet mule to which de Nieves has spent the day attaching pale beads, like plastic crystals. He says he never has an end result in mind, instead letting each bead guide him, transfiguring a shoe he’s worn night after night into a strange new object. 

“I always think of this as, like, a form of fungus,” he explains. Though the object in front of him looks more like a geode by way of Lisa Frank, decay—along with the state of American politics—is one of his current preoccupations. But then, decomposition itself is a form of transformation. “You have to accept what’s going on around you,” says de Nieves, “but make it something positive, something that you can possibly, maybe enjoy, or find beauty in.”

Photography: Ricardo Nelson

Photographed at De Nieves’s studio in Flushing, N.Y.

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