Raul De Nieves Artist New York Whitney Biennial Interview

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Art, Nightlife & the Inspirational Force of NYC

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Micki Pellerano sits down with friend, performer, and artist on the rise Raùl De Nieves to talk about the art of brand collaborations, the creative potential of NYC, and more. 

Raùl De Nieves is an artist living and working in Brooklyn since 2008. His formidable reconstructions of shoes and apparel, laboriously elaborate paintings, and powerful stage presence as a performer have earned him prominent visibility since he first settled in the city. At the 2017 Whitney Biennial, De Nieves rendered a stained glass window that encompassed the Meatpacking District Institution’s eastern façade and illuminated the nearby Highline Park with the splendor of its color by night. Since then, his career has expanded considerably, commanding exhibitions all over the world, as well as representation at the Lower East Side’s Company Gallery, reputed in New York art circles for showcasing the work of some of the most innovative and resonant names in contemporary art.

Recently, De Nieves’s performance art band, Hairbone, was handpicked by Missoni creative director Angela Missoni to be part of the fashion house’s “Surface Conversion” project. The opening, which took place this summer at the Madison Avenue flagship, was a tumultuous occasion where the band played a live set in the second-floor gallery to an invitation-only audience replete with savage vocalizations and punk-rock destructive rigor. Still on display are scrapbook collages of Hairbone’s ten-year history. Their saturated colors set the storefront window ablaze and adorn light-boxes scattered strategically amid the store’s interior.

Furthermore, De Nieves’s work sheds light upon a historic cultural trajectory whereby creative movements that originate in underground subcultures are absorbed by fashion and society and ultimately ensconce themselves into popular consciousness. 

Can you tell us a bit about your heritage and how you came to live in New York?

Raùl De Nieves: I was born in Morelia, Michoacán, and one day when I was seven, my aunt showed up at my school and told me I’d be leaving early. That same day we emigrated to San Diego where I grew up. I moved to San Francisco in my twenties, which is where we met. So I started working with you and moved into your extra room in Greenpoint, and here we are now.

What is it about New York that keeps you here as a home base?

RDN: I feel like it’s the excitement and the infinite encounters in dealing with people. I have been here for 13 years and I still meet new people and connect on a weekly basis. I go out a lot and find parties in this city expand an understanding of who is here and why. In a way, I have a key to a place that requires so much of your passion to be here. I also have a great community of friends who have been with me from the beginning, and our friendships keep getting tighter. I love the diversity of the city and how stylish it is. It really gives you total access to what you want to be, who you want to be around. 

In addition to exhibiting in many galleries and museums this year, you have worked alongside luxury brands like Tiffany’s, Bvlgari, Swarovski, Missoni, and Hermès. Is it a challenge to maintain your vision while engaged in projects with commercial brands?

RDN: First of all, I would say that it’s been an honor to work with brands that I have always had an admiration for, but it’s also given me a platform to make things I could never even dreamed of. My vision has been expanded by these experiences. And I have never once felt that the brands have tried to influence that in any way. At Tiffany’s, I was able to make a silver box, which gave me the opportunity to collaborate with master artisanal engravers and to learn so much about craft and design. You can only learn these things by experience. It has also allowed me to open my projects not just to my studio or to the community of the art world but to the entire world around me. This latest project with Hermès has given me the opportunity to work with fabricators and really enlarge the scale of the work, so it has enhanced both a visual and verbal language of communicating symbols and ideas.  

What about the event at Missoni last month at the Upper East Side boutique? I don’t think I’ve ever had an experience like that on Madison Avenue.

RDN: The Missoni project was a collaboration with my band Hairbone. It was such an amazing experience because it not only allowed a larger scale of collaboration with Hairbone but it was an opportunity for me and my bandmates, Jessie Stead and Nathan Whipple, to look back on ten years of forming a band.

If I hadn’t have moved to New York, I can’t imagine ever having met Jessie and Whipple. We are all working artists finding another medium that connects us with other musicians and members of DIY music culture. It’s great that New York City still has basement shows at people’s houses. [The underground music scene is] still very much alive.

Next, we will be playing the MoMA PS1 Book Fair on September 19 with Blank Forms who put out our first LP, Earth To Momma. They’re a label working with reissuing a lot of historic New York avant-garde staples like Arto Lindsay. The label is run by Lawrence Kumpf who was in charge of Issue Project Room, one of the most important music venues for the avant-garde in the city.

What can you share about your upcoming exhibition on the Lower East Side?

RDN: It’s called “As Far as Youuu Take Me.” I want it to feel like an evolution of what I’ve learned since the Whitney Biennial. Understanding the materials I’m using and gearing them towards a journey of how we find ourselves. The structures are growing into these whimsical, fantastical experiments that are reflective of organic growth in nature. And there’s going to be a stained glass ceiling. It’s all about the seven chakras.

What do the seven chakras symbolize to you?

RDN: They’re about searching for energies that are available to everyone but you have to make a decision. You can develop an individual way of thinking and creating that can influence your consciousness to expand toward a more universal level experience. Having my friends around me like you and Haribone has really been so inspiring. The more you open yourself up to others, the more you learn.

“As Far As Youuu Can Take Me” opens September 11 and runs through October at Company Gallery, 88 Eldridge Street, 5th Floor.

WORDS Micki Pellerano 

PHOTOGRAPHY Sebastian Bach

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