“The Treasure House of Memory,” the sparkly, candy-colored mini-survey of Raúl de Nieves’s work at the Institute of Contemporary Art, balances on the knife’s edge between dark and light, pleasure and pain. Look, for instance, at three brightly-bejeweled sculptures of horse-headed humans in stilettos, back-arched in agonizing contortion: Whatever their glittering skins, that has to hurt.
At 38, de Nieves has navigated this schism for much of his life, to say nothing of his career. Growing up in Michoacán, Mexico, he learned traditional craft techniques from his mother and aunts; the dazzlingly intricate plastic beadwork that encrusts much of his work is a direct descendant of those traditions. What he also learned was an approach to life and death very different from the all-in-black convention of American mourning. In Michoacán — whose largest city, Morelia, is the country’s unofficial capital of Day of the Dead celebrations — death is embraced for annual, exuberant celebration of eternal spirits transcending earthly life.
Speaking with the PBS documentary series “Art 21” on the occasion of his inclusion in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, de Nieves, who now lives in New York, called growing up in Michoacán “magical,” explaining that he was able to see “all the facets of happiness and sadness in one place.” The ICA offers a small sampling, just seven works, all of them finished this year; but it also provides signposts along his journey of becoming.
Back to the contortionists — awkward, extravagant, topographical landscapes of vibrant textural joy. He titles each one a “mare,” the equine kind, tied to a point in his own life: “The Mare of Threes,” pink, purple, and black (de Nieves was not yet 3 years old when his father died); “The Mare of Nines,” a fluid swirl of dark and bright green accented with an arm of bright pink (he was 9 when his single mother brought him and his siblings to the United States to live in San Diego); and “The Mare of Thirty-Threes,” orange and blood-red, like a fiery flow of lava (his father was 33 when he died — coincidentally, so the legend goes, the same age as Jesus Christ.
It all makes for an animated memory play, de Nieves working through in material and form the spectres of a personal history that seem to occupy his mind as living things. He inhabits several contrary states at once, by his own reckoning: gay and Catholic, Mexican and American, with the current political reality contorting the latter into something more contentious than at any time in recent memory. (”I’m showing in a museum of American art, and I’m of Mexican descent,” he said to Art21. “What does that mean today? And what will that mean tomorrow? I don’t know.”) His work embraces all of it, gloriously unapologetic in its complexity.
I can’t look at his work without thinking of the artist Nick Cave, whose soundsuits, conceived to conceal his Blackness in the aftermath of the Rodney King trial, are just as ornate. But where Cave used ornament as armor, a way to explicitly not be seen, de Nieves invites you to look closely at the sum total of experiences that make him who he is.
His work is what might happen if a funeral were held in a nightclub. Drag and club culture — sequins and beads, extravagant color, bodies in frantic motion — play a part, though I kept seeing his sculptural pieces as objects worked on not just by his hand but by time. They evoke ancient statuary, abandoned by the ages at the bottom of the sea to be encrusted by corals: experience as accretion, added in layers.
Just look at the only two works here pinned to the wall and not freestanding. They are glorious tableaux of lived experience, bits and pieces gathered along the way embedded in their thick skins: “Who Would We Be Without Our Memories,” big and broad and 10 feet tall, is almost a relief map of the psyche, festooned with snips of fronds and feathers, drawings and postcards, ribbons and paper flowers. “The Leap Into the Sun,” a perfect circle, carries more specific freight: Its thick hide drips confetti strands and beads; nested in it are old photographs and toys. Alighting here and there are Monarch butterflies, which trek between Michoacán (there’s a sanctuary just outside Morelia) and Canada every year.
In the heart of the gallery, a horse, stocky with a rainbow of crystalline skin, rears up, its tail a cascade of gold sequins. He calls it “The Fable, which is composed of wonders, moves the more,” an upbeat perspective if there ever was one. It’s the heart of things in more ways than one: de Nieves gathers up those wonders by the armload and puts them back into the world, dense and sparkly monuments to life lived. “The Fable” is his, a fantastical tale spun of self-possession and hope, where all, ultimately, is wonder, however complicated.
RAUL DE NIEVES: THE TREASURE HOUSE OF MEMORY
Through July 24, 2022. Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 25 Harbor Shore Drive. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.org