‘Happiness and Sadness All in One Place’: See How Artist Raúl de Nieves Constructs His Colorful, Intimate Environments

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the Art21 "New York Close Up" film, "Raúl de Nieves is an American Artist." © Art21, Inc. 2017.

When he was just nine years old, Raúl de Nieves boarded a plane to the United States and left behind his extended family, his belongings, and everything he’d ever known in Michoacán, Mexico to begin a new life in San Diego. As a queer artist and immigrant, he considered his invitation to participate in the 2017 Whitney Biennial especially meaningful.

“Essentially I’m showing in the Museum of American Art,” he says in an exclusive interview with Art21 as part of the “New York Close Up” series. “And I’m of Mexican descent. But what does that mean today? And what does that mean tomorrow? I don’t know.”

What de Nieves does know is that his art practice would not exist without his childhood experiences in Mexico. He fashions intricate plastic-beaded sculptures layered with other materials like crocheted fabric and colored gels to create massive sculptural works. For the Whitney Biennial, he incorporated stained-glass murals to be displayed alongside his sculptures, a work he called a “celebration of life.” 

Installation view of Raul de Nieves, “Somos Monstros 2” at the Whitney. Courtesy of Company Gallery. Photo: Bill Orcutt.

Although he describes his upbringing as “magical,” he says that “defeat is really important. It should be somewhat of a struggle to continue.”

When he was two, de Nieves’s father died. He credits his mother’s courage in bringing her family to the U.S. and raising him alone in a foreign place. His work, he says, is both both a tribute to his father and a promise for a “better tomorrow.” 

Right now at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Transformer Station, de Nieves’s site-specific installation “Raúl de Nieves: Fina” marks his first solo museum exhibition. As at the Whitney, it features intricately beaded and multi-layered sculptures that animate the space.

“That’s what my work is about,” he told Art21. “It’s like seeing the facets of happiness and sadness all in one place.”

Watch the full segment, which originally appeared as part of the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” television series on PBS, below. “Raúl de Nieves: Fina” is on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art Transformer Station through April 28, 2019. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship Art in the Twenty-First Century television is available now on PBS. Watch full episodes and learn about the organization’s education programs at Art21.org.

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