The sculptures, paintings, and costumes in Raúl De Nieves’s exhibition “El Rio” conjure an intricate world of glittering coral reefs, ornamented cathedrals, epic military campaigns, ancient ceremonies, and lush jungles. A series of four compositions in colored beads, paper, and confetti on plywood served as a compass for the show. Using a symbolic visual vocabulary that evokes Medieval European tapestries, the series depicts virtues—including diligence, justice, and generosity—espoused in the Buddhist mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum.” In Wisdom (2015), a trinity knot floats over the head of a symmetrical owl; in Justice (2015), pink and purple flowers surround St. George while he tramples a serpent with his horse. The works suggest narratives of crusades and violent conversions. But rendered in party supply materials and evincing a sort of New Age pantheism, they carry surreal overtones of celebration.
Throughout the gallery, floor sculptures resembling sections of coral rested on beds of fine stones. Boutique Nine (2015), one component of the faux reef, mimics coral’s organic folds, fluid agglomerations, and tangled protuberances. Its elaborate beadwork imbues the sculpture with a lifelike dynamism. As in many of the coral pieces, a pair of high-heeled shoes are embedded in Boutique Nine; the elegant naturalistic forms appear to have grown around the footwear.
In drag culture, high heels and beads can facilitate a glamorous metamorphosis. The beaded shoes in the coral sculptures evoke the DIY creations made for the popular “heelconcept” hashtag on Instagram. The hashtag prompted contributors to produce improvised shoe designs using housewares, trophies, Bic lighters, fruit, ribbons, or whatever else was on hand. Most of these “shoes” were nonfunctional and precarious, suitable only for a posed photograph rather than for actual wear. But, as in De Nieves’s work, the frivolous or even silly constructions had nuanced implications, positioning the body on a fluid boundary between the mundane and the chic.
De Nieves replaced the gallery’s typical lighting with yellow fluorescent bulbs, installed mock stained-glass windows, and painted the walls and floor black. These gestures transformed the space into an otherworldly stage set—something between a church and a nightclub—and heightened the melodrama of the costumes and mannequins on view. Two full-body costumes with gorillalike masks dangled next to each another. Titled Day and Night, the suits are adorned with wild embroidery and rhinestones, and the fronts and backs of the suits bear large depictions of faces making exaggerated expressions. In Night, raised eyebrows appear angry or imploring. In Day, curled tongues alternate between appearing flirtatious and seeming manic.
Night and Day borrow the bold visual economy of Aztec ornaments and Greek theater masks, the latter of which transformed actors into allegorical characters, allowing bodies to communicate what language alone could not. Club attire similarly facilitates sensual nonverbal communication. The imperative of drag is artifice, which allows for a generous, pluralistic presentation of identity. Night and Day offer a rich affective register for such a performance of self. Like the rest of the work in “El Rio,” they suggest an odyssey-cum-catwalk, through which bodies are empowered by the desires they elicit and represent.