The Mundane Made Holy

Review of Raúl de Nieves: A window to the see, a spirit star chiming in the wind of wonder… at Henry Art Gallery

Written by TeenTix Newsroom Writer Sylvia Jarman and edited by Teen Editorial Staff Member Aamina Mughal

20231004 Raúl de Nieves 0093 Medium

“A window to the see, a spirit star chiming in the wind of wonder as you crown me with your iron, aid me on my flight…” it began. It felt like eavesdropping as I listened to the poem be read aloud by the artist himself, Raúl de Nieves, just as I had wandered into the gallery. It was a perfect illustration of de Nieves’ theology: an eclectic blend of spiritualism, Catholicism, self-expression, the cycle of rebirth, life, and death, and the belief that there is wonder to be found in the everyday. I was entirely enchanted by the small fragment that I had seen of de Nieves’ world, enamored by how exuberant it all seemed. The gallery demands that you see it in its entirety for you to see “a glimpse of infinity,” the “foliage of the light,” and “the unreality of the unseen” as the poem outlines.

A Window to the See prompts you to walk through the gallery circularly. Following the 21 stanzas lining the walls leads you in a full circle encompassing the gallery, past each of the three sculptures, beneath the arches of stained glass, with the final stanza leading back into the first seamlessly. The way that the curation plays into the themes becomes even more clear when considering the placement of the three sculptures. Following the poems in order takes you past “Deaths of the Everyday” first, followed by “The Gift” in the middle and “Celebration (Mother)” on the opposite end, nearing the last stanza. The three sculptures are representative of the three stages of life that de Nieves has identified: rebirth, life, and death, and they are presented in that order. This is yet another subversion of commonly held beliefs in Western canon. De Nieves skews this idea by presenting a nonlinear journey through the stages of life, beginning with rebirth and ending in death.

Raúl de Nieves: A window to the see, a spirit star chiming in the wind of wonder… [Installation view, Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle. 2023]. Photo: Jonathan Vanderweit.

“Deaths of the Everyday” doesn’t use the same imagery that other depictions of rebirth do. It shows it as a bloody and violent process, clawing your way back out of the grave. The piece is barely recognizable as human, with just some vaguely discernable limbs jutting out. It is suspended by industrial metal bars, holding it over a rusted grate. The figure is caked in fake flies and beads of green, red, and white, giving the appearance of bleeding, rotted flesh. It is a grotesque depiction of rebirth, and yet, it is still just as beautiful as the other sculptures. The beads that coat it still glimmer when they catch the light, there is still clear intention and reverence in the way that it is depicted. It shows de Nieves’ view of rebirth; one must pull oneself back together from nothing, bringing oneself back to life after death. “The Gift” is much more clear in what it represents. Of the three sculptures, it represents life. It is the most recognizably human of the three, standing upright, adorned in a dress decorated in bells, beads, tassels, and lace. This sculpture is also the most reflective of de Nieves’ background in drag. There is a performance-like quality in this sculpture, with the beaded face having a distinctly mask-like feeling to it, with its hollow eyes, on top of the actual masks hanging from a dress made with traditional Mexican textile work. The sculpture is a celebration of self-expression, culture, and sexuality, but also the mundane: the different motions that we go through in life, and the different masks that we wear. It’s a celebration of what defines life in the eyes of de Nieves. The final sculpture, opposite to “Deaths of the Everyday,” is “Celebration (Mother),” representative of death. The piece itself is skeletal remains laid to rest on a bed of beads, shining brilliantly when hit with the gallery lights. Laid all around the body are what appear to be funeral offerings, albeit unconventional ones: faded toys, bottles of alcohol, aging phones and laptops, candies, condoms, tubes of professional paint contrasting crayola markers, dog toys, masks, and nameplates that the artist had worn, even including the one he presented the piece while wearing. While staged like a memorial, the piece is not at all sad. It’s not mourning a life lost, it’s celebrating a life lived and everything it has amounted to: the life of the artist themself. They are memorialized with objects that they used and cherished in their everyday life, not traditionally lavish items made from gold and gemstones that you would imagine to be placed in a coffin. With this piece, de Nieves argues that being honored with items from his everyday life would be a more meaningful send-off than being put to rest with items of luxury, a final case for the wonder and joy to be found in the everyday.

The most miraculous thing to me about de Nieves’ art is the variety of materials that he uses. The main draw of the exhibit is de Nieves’ stained glass panels, custom fit to the skylights of the Henry’s lower floor. And yet, the pieces aren’t even true stained glass. They are made from the simplest materials, just colored acetate and tape. The stained glass pieces also show de Nieves’ incredible ability to work with a universally available material; light. Light has found its way into De Nieves’ work in A Window to the See… in multiple ways: from the sunlight streaming through the multicolored panels of the stained glass to the placement of the gallery lights in a way that catches the beads of the sculptures, to several references to it in the poem. It’s the culmination of de Nieves’ emphasis on the use of everyday, accessible materials. This emphasis is seen again in the gifts bestowed upon the body in “Celebration (Mother),” with the subversion of traditional funeral offerings. The feeling of the piece is still loving, almost more personal or truthful than if the deceased was buried with all of its riches. De Nieves’ art serves to emphasize the true power of the mundane, showing that the purest form of life is the everyday banalities, seen in the gifts bestowed upon the body in “Celebration (Mother).” and the opulent, lucent environment created in the gallery through the use of light as a medium. By creating stained glass tapestries with easily accessible materials and offering the dead monuments to their everyday lives in the temple-like setting created by the gallery, de Nieves makes the mundane holy.

Every choice that was made in the display and creation was done with such a clear motivation that the meaning behind the exhibit feels like it comes naturally as you wander from poem to poem. They gradually wash over you, these grand revelations about the inherent value in what is often overlooked. A Window to the See… is an incredibly ambitious exhibit, and I am amazed to say that it has accomplished everything that it has set out to, perfectly depicting de Nieves’ philosophies and creating an incredibly exuberant, spiritual, and bright exhibit.

Lead Photo Credit: Raúl de Nieves: A window to the see, a spirit star chiming in the wind of wonder… [Installation view, Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle. 2023]. Photo: Jonathan Vanderweit.

The TeenTix Newsroom is a group of teen writers led by the Teen Editorial Staff. For each review, Newsroom writers work individually with a teen editor to polish their writing for publication. The Teen Editorial Staff is made up of 5 teens who curate the review portion of the TeenTix blog. More information about the Teen Editorial Staff can be found HERE.

The TeenTix Press Corps promotes critical thinking, communication, and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. For more information about the Press Corps program see HERE.

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