I know sculptures can’t dance, but Raúl de Nieves’s Day(Ves) of Wonder looks like it might bust a move any minute. The three-foot piece—which depicts a humanoid figure in mid-groove, decked out in rainbow-colored platform boots, with swaying arms, cocked hips, and a sprawling, Medusa-like head—pulses with energy. Currently on view at MoMA PS1 as part of Greater New York, Day(Ves) of Wonder sits atop a standard white pedestal, which the piece effectively turns into its own dance floor.
Only upon closer inspection can a viewer discern that the psychedelic, candy-colored sculpture is made up of hundreds of individual beads—the cheap, plastic kind found in craft stores.
On an unusually warm December morning in an airy room on MoMA PS1’s third floor, de Nieves explained to me that working with such unorthodox material posed a challenge. While de Nieves had made beaded sculptures out of shoes, he had never used the tiny objects to compose a freestanding work of art, and the piece kept falling down. Each crash sent countless beads scattering across the floor of his studio.“It was the most frustrating thing,” de Nieves says, “because I’d be like, ‘What am I doing wrong?’” For a while, he kept Day(Ves) in a box, too embarrassed to show it. “I’d be like, ‘It fell again! Aaahh!’” he exclaims, shaking his fists in mock fury. He realizes he could have attached the sculpture to a plinth to keep it upright, but resisted: “I was really obsessed with the fact that, no, he needed to stand on his own.”
The trick lay in accepting that he couldn’t envision the sculpture’s body ahead of time. “I knew I wanted to depict a toddler’s size in height, so that was the most planning I could do,” de Nieves told me. “Everything else became kind of secondary because there is so much improvisation in the work.”
So de Nieves transformed breakage into inspiration, rather than frustration. The colored tendrils of beads that adorn Day(Ves)’s torso, legs, and arms function as bandages, holding the artwork’s body together in places where it had previously fissured. By highlighting, rather than hiding, the sculpture’s moments of collapse, de Nieves stood Day(Ves) up on its own two feet.
De Nieves started Day(Ves) of Wonder in 2006, when he moved to Brooklyn, and it took him seven years to complete. “I felt like I learned so much [making the sculpture],” he says, “because there were moments where I felt like I was failing, but I wasn’t afraid to be like, ‘Oh, I failed. This didn’t work.’ I kept giving it more chances.”
The artist talks about Day(Ves) less like an object and more like a friend; he even calls “him” Dave, for short. “The fact that I could spend seven years of my life thinking about this is really beautiful to me. Sometimes our relationships with other people don’t even last the span of that time.”
Just because Day(Ves) of Wonder has the iridescent glow and bold hues of a Jolly Rancher doesn’t mean it’s a purely pop confection. Reflecting on the transient nature of life is one way de Nieves connects with his Mexican heritage, which embraces the importance of thinking “about how we will leave our presence at one moment, and that is something we should also celebrate.”
De Nieves was born in the Michoacan province of central Mexico and migrated to San Diego in 1993, when he was nine years old. (Days of Wonder is the name of a daycare de Nieves’s mother owns in San Diego.) He attributes the idea that he could be an artist to his schooling in Mexico. “You have to take sewing classes, cooking classes—they even teach you to crochet,” de Nieves says. “So I grew up already with this background in using my hands to create something.”
De Nieves moved to San Francisco where, instead of attending art school himself, he befriended young people his age who did, often giving himself exercises based on their assignments. He credits Day(Ves) of Wonder as a testament to his artistic practice: “I was only going to go to school for four years, and it took me seven years to make [Day(Ves)]. I don’t know that I could have made this in school. They probably would have been like, ‘You shouldn’t work on this anymore!’”
I asked de Nieves if there was an artist in the Greater New York exhibition whose work he’d like to show me, and he led me to the sculptures of Susan Cianciolo. A series of female mannequins striking angular poses were lined up against the wall, and their clothes were fashioned out of household items: a bath towel-skirt and a lacey curtain-turned-smock.
De Nieves, staring at the sculptures with a smile on his face, remarked matter-of-factly, “You can make things out of nothing and still look good.”
He should know, having constructed a luminous work of art out of discarded plastic beads.