Los Angeles

Raúl de Nieves, Psychopomp, 2018, vintage millinery trim, rhinestones, plastic beads, thread, glue, cardboard, mannequin, zipper, 44 × 15 × 25".

Raúl de Nieves, Psychopomp, 2018, vintage millinery trim, rhinestones, plastic beads, thread, glue, cardboard, mannequin, zipper, 44 × 15 × 25".

Raúl de Nieves

Freedman Fitzpatrick

Raúl de Nieves, Psychopomp, 2018, vintage millinery trim, rhinestones, plastic beads, thread, glue, cardboard, mannequin, zipper, 44 × 15 × 25".

The work of Mexican-born, New York–based artist Raúl de Nieves owes much of its sensibility to early-1970s glam: its artifice, excess, and glittering attitude toward gender. But there was nothing nostalgic, ironic, or retro about the seven figurative sculptures, four mosaiclike wall works, and three drawings that comprised this show. Rather, the works’ dazzling, obsessive surfaces seemed earnestly drawn from some collision of nature, Pop, and fantasy in the service of pure theater. The actors here were six three-foot-tall bodies, each a construction of fiberglass, glue, and multicolored plastic beads that resembled oversize sugar candies. Peopling the crimson-walled gallery, the thigh-high troupe of sprites wore ornamented, color-coded costumes variously supplemented by headdresses, wings, and platform shoes (all of which appear often in de Nieves’s sculptures). Vaguely recalling Henry Darger’s Vivian Girls, the doll-like femme army was posed as if in spirited dance. Bethany (all works 2018), for example, looked like a child in a red, horned devil costume. Sunny wore a yellow piece with beaded ribbons of blue snaking down its sides.

Presiding over the scene from the corner of the gallery was the seventh sculpture, Psychopomp, a decidedly female figure just a head taller than the sprites, dripping in millinery trim, curtain tassels, rhinestones, and beads. Her hulking, fringed body was surrounded by a stone circle. As antiquity’s guide of souls into the afterlife, the psychopomp in this tableau underscored the mythopoeic flavor of de Nieves’s new work. Elsewhere, other archetypes emerged; the cycle of three-dimensional wall works was inspired by the four seasons, each decorated with a somewhat incidental face in high relief of, respectively, a witch, a devil, a Disneyesque Snow White, and a Mexican masked wrestler. Nearby, three works on vellum, Fool I, Fool II, and Fool III, featured precisely drawn clown faces rendered in a graphic style not unrelated to the payasos so popular in lowrider culture and tattoo art. Whereas the titular character of the fool—the novitiate of the tarot’s major arcana—represents new beginnings, wide-eyed innocence, and spontaneity, the clown can be a trickster, a joker, an all-too-emotional creature. The fool is a recurring theme in de Nieves’s work: The Fool was the title of an opera he composed with artist Colin Self and performed in 2014 and 2017; the epic project featured beaded set pieces similar to the wall panels in this show. But here, all those archetypes melded into one in a reflection on the human condition, with all its potential and pathos.<span class=“Apple-converted-space”>   </span>

While de Nieves wanders comfortably into the arcane, the fanciful, and the esoteric, this show seemed to crave the raw energy, density, and magical rudeness that he brings to the rest of his visual art, which is, by nature, an extension of his performance, music, fashion, and persona (and vice versa). As a performer, de Nieves is overdetermined (in the best way), improvisatory, confrontational, and magnetic. With his noise band Haribo, for example, he is unbridled, wearing wild, gender-bending costumes and investigating high-concept themes. He is hypnotizing. This show, verging on the polite, could easily have doubled the figures, tripled the weird fascinating drawings, thrown in an amp, and turned up the feedback. De Nieves is at his best when he himself plays the psychopomp, leading his audiences into strange, delightful underworlds.