Raúl de Nieves, installation view of “The Treasure House of Memory,” 2021–22. Photo: Mel Taing, Courtesy Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston

Raúl de Nieves


Institute of Contemporary Art

In “The Treasure House of Memory,” Raúl de Nieves’s exhibition of recent sculptures and wall works (through July 24), lines appear and disappear, linking materials with personal and cultural histories. Whatever the form of de Nieves’s lines—strings of beads, shreds of paper, strokes of paint, or literal threads—they suggest how the present is connected to the past. To pursue his lines is to trail a map of remembrances.

For instance, in Who Would We Be Without Our Memories (2017–21), a wall-based topography of cut paper and ephemera, bright orange, yellow, and green lines stretch out like branches. Along the way, they brush against images of a younger de Nieves, cut pieces from his early tarot-inspired drawings, and postcard reproductions of significant art historical paintings. This map of sorts also includes de Nieves’s artist pass to the 2017 Whitney Biennial and an image of Beginning & the end neither & the otherwise betwixt & between the end is the beginning & the end (2017) installed there. In this 50-foot window installation with the appearance of stained glass, paper, glue, beads, and wood rhythmed with thick black lines shape human forms, vessels, symbols, and words (“truth,” “justice,” and “harmony,” among them). In a similar way, Who Would We Be Without Our Memories forms a visual essay on the human experience, this time devoted to de Nieves’s story.

The collage includes images of Saint George and the dragon—a central motif in de Nieves’s lexicon of symbols, which incorporates Mexican, queer, and religious iconography. The legend of a mythic savior, mounted on horseback, who saves a village from a predatory beast provides one context for de Nieves’s fascination with animals. Horses and centaur-like creatures with horse heads and human legs shod in stilettos make frequent appearances in his work, often formed by the accumulation of frenetic, yet precise beadwork. One such sculpture, The Fable, which is composed of wonders, moves the more (2021) stands in the central gallery, a shimmeringly mesmerizing horse rising on its hind legs as if in defiance. The Fable amasses brilliantly colored beads into various textures—up close, the surfaces recall coral reefs—anchored by the strings of gold scales that form the horse’s tail. This gilded emphasis feels like a pointed metaphor for “tales,” the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our lives and surroundings.

de Nieves’s beaded centaurs are captured mid-movement, as if they’ve been frozen in place and preserved for eternity. Color is patchworked, and beads coalesce in meticulous configurations that blend the fantastical with the lifelike. de Nieves has said that he sees the craft as a means to mark time. His beadwork not only notches moments passed, but also creates a lineage between Mexican craft traditions and queer and drag culture. Like his recent exhibitions “Carnage Composition” (Company, New York) and “Betwixt the Hands of Time” (Apalazzo Gallery, Brescia, Italy), “The Treasure House of Memory” makes us look for the legible or tangible amid his collections of form, material, and meaning. But here, de Nieves pushes modes of abstraction, both formally and conceptually, to make sense of time passing. “The Treasure House of Memory” uses the accumulation of materials to abstract form, simultaneously recording and concealing a moment. Pulled into these amalgamations, we are drawn to trace de Nieves’s lines like archaeologists, invited to unearth the treasures of his experience and our own.