Symbolic Vocabularies

When I entered Calles y Sueños, La Casa de Arte y Cultura, at around 8pm, artist Alfonso “Piloto” Nieves was discussing each of his sculptures in rapid-fire Spanish to the assembled group of 40 or so. Each intricate piece was composed of dozens of tiny symbolic elements, and the viewers stepped forward cautiously to peer into tiny crevices, iPhone flashlights in hand.

In his works, Nieves seems to be largely concerned with the “disconnection,” as he puts it, of modern  consumers from themselves, from each other, and from nature. His choice of materials, in addition to what he chooses to depict, embodies this contrast. Nieves highlights the fact that every sculpture is made from clay–“everything comes from the earth,” he explains–and in nearly every work, twigs and soil are juxtaposed with garbage-derived elements like plastic bottles, used syringes, and cut-up credit cards. Yet this apparent contrast is perhaps a commentary on the increasingly blurred line between the natural and the artificial. Nieves explained to me how, in his childhood environment in Mexico, playing outside (in nature, or its nearest approximation) largely consisted of playing in garbage, frequently running the risk of stepping on the syringes or pieces of glass that he now embeds in his work.

In one piece, “Cambia tu estatus (Change Your Status),” a hollowed-out TV set contains a dystopian scene: a disembodied head vomits into a toilet while another metallic figurine is cut in two, its bottom half wired into Facebook. Under the TV set are a series of sewers emptying out from a brick wall. The sewers act as peep-holes into a futuristic city-scene made out of cyber-chips.  Magazine scraps spill out from the TV onto yet another scene, in which an eerie, gun-toting figure wearing a blindfold and the Statue of Liberty’s  crown stands on an armchair behind a slouching boy in a backwards baseball cap,  his eyes transfixed on the screen he manipulates with a controller in his hands. Yet another disembodied head, massive in relation to the other elements, looms ominously over the TV, its brain cut open to reveal computer parts and its hand clutching a white iPod. The piece speaks to the influence of modern technology, which stuffs us with what Nieves calls “mental garbage.”

One of the most striking features of Nieves’ oeuvre is the way in which it makes use of different vocabularies. It appropriates a varied, seemingly timeless symbolic language  from a larger cultural context–myth, for example (or maybe just implied myth). For instance, in one piece, a big clay turtle carries a tree on its back, while another, “Recuperando conciencia (Regaining Consciousness),” echoes the form and intricacy of an Aztec calendar. With this, Nieves creates a certain privileged level of understanding reserved for those savvy to the context from which he draws, an effect that, in reversing the marginalization of Latinos, seems political in nature.

However, his work also creates its own symbolic vocabulary in a way that is strikingly reminiscent of Frida Kahlo: certain minute elements like mirrors, human figurines, ears, hands, hearts, arrows, rusty nails, chains, and green shoots recur in multiple pieces. This second vocabulary demands a certain patience to decode the meaning of its particular symbolism.

The overall effect, while incredibly rich, can also be overwhelming, as the viewer is dazzled by the mechanisms of a thousand working parts. “Solo hay una salida (Only One Way Out)” speaks to the collection at large: the sculpture balances one half of the earth with an hourglass-like configuration, whereas a head with a rotted-out brain is sunken into the uppermost half, all surrounded by an impossible maze. Every potential exit is walled off. Inside the head is a barren, rubble-strewn landscape from which emerges a ruddy anatomical heart and two ears, tellingly turned inward. From the forehead rises a tiny staircase with an even smaller human figurine at its top, looking skyward.

Directly beneath this figurine on the other hemisphere is a tiny circular mirror; when the viewer stands in front of it in a particular spot, she can simultaneously see both her eye perfectly framed by the mirror and the reflected staircase with its implied heavenly aspirations. There’s a union of the personal and the spiritual in this image, but it isn’t clear Nieves’ intentions end there.